Review
Culture
5 min read

Local Hero’s 40-year-old lesson about relationships

As social media divides us and generates simulated experiences and friendships, Local Hero is a gorgeous and glorious antidote, writes Yaroslav Walker.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

Two business men in suits hold coats and briefcases, stand in the sea with their trousers rolled-up above their ankles
Local Hero's iconic cinema poster.
Warner Bros.

This year marks four decades since the release of Bill Forsyth’s masterpiece, and it is a real joy to have the excuse to revisit it. Local Hero is a glorious warm-mug-of-tea of a film: charming, gentle, sweet, gorgeous, and funny in the kindest and most uplifting way. What’s more, its theme and message are as pertinent as they were forty years ago… more so, actually. 

Local Hero follows Peter Riegert’s Mac, a faux-Scotsman who is displaced from his busy life as an oil executive in Houston to the small Highland village of Ferness. There he is expected to oversee the sale of the village and beach so it can be developed into an oil refinery. The eccentric and astronomy obsessed owner of the oil-company Felix Happer, played by Burt Lancaster, thinks that Mac is just the right man for the job on account of his name sounding Scottish. 

Watch the Local Hero trailer

Upon arriving in Scotland Mac meets Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) who will be his assistant from the Scottish branch of the company, and the two set off on the journey to Ferness – meeting Jenny Seagrove’s love interest and an ultimately unfortunate rabbit. When in Ferness Mac must contend with Denis Lawson’s hotelier-barman-accountant Gordon Urquhart, an affable but shrewd negotiator who is determined to get as much money as possible for the people of Ferness. During his stay Mac is baffled, bemused, and slowly bewitched by the colourful locals, from Urquhart’s wife Stella to Soviet fisherman Victor to shabby beachcomber Ben. 

I dare not say much more about the plot so as not to rob you, dear potential viewer, of the delightful experience of allowing Forsyth’s perfect writing and delicate directing envelop and clam you, take you by the hand and lead you through the story with grace and wit. The performances are lovely, Mark Knopfler’s haunting soundtrack (a balancing of folk, soft-rock, jazz, and electronica) complements the scenery, and the BAFTA nominated cinematography by Chris Menges captures that wild and rugged coastal landscape in all its glory. The Scottish landscape is really the unspoken lead of the film, and more often than not transports the viewer into the transcendent realms of the sublime! 

I chose my words carefully: the theme of the film is very much about the power of natural beauty to change the values and perspective of the individual. Mac begins the story as a high-powered and cynical corporate man – willing to lie about his name and preferring to do deals over Telex than have real human interaction with clients. Oldsen is young and ambitious, fascinated by the glamorous lifestyle of the US, and keen to do well in his chosen profession. Yet over the days and weeks that they spend in Ferness, their outlook begins to change.

What is wonderful about Bill Forsyth’s subtle storytelling is that we know all this not because of any grand speeches, but with little visual cues. 

The sheer beauty and simplicity of the coast takes hold of the businessmen and overwhelms their ambition and materialism with the power of the sublime. What is wonderful about Bill Forsyth’s subtle storytelling is that we know all this not because of any grand speeches, but with little visual cues. Slowly the dress of the two men devolves to mirror their thoughts and feelings: from the full corporate dress, to the removing of a tie, to by the end of the film dressing like a local in a proper cable-knit sweater. Mac comes to see that emptiness and vacuity of his life in Texas and yearns for the simple life by the sea surrounded by the majestic Scottish cliffs. Even as the locals become more and more excited by the prospect of their newly promised wealth, Mac and Oldsen come to regret their involvement in a scheme that will destroy the glory of the landscape. 

 

There is a message beneath the message: the sublimity of the natural world can only be truly experienced in the context of human relationships. 

This in itself would be enough for the film to have maintained its relevance for forty years – it's impossible to study current affairs today without encountering worries about climate change, pollution, over-industrialisation, and the loss of the natural world. The film’s clear conservationist message is as fresh as ever, but it isn’t the most powerful, for there is a message beneath the message: the sublimity of the natural world can only be truly experienced in the context of human relationships.  

As I watched the film again, I noticed that the power of the scenery in the background is complimented and elevated by the human connections in the foreground. Mac forges a real friendship with Urquhart and develops a real fondness for the local people, so although he loves the landscape it is the relationships it inspires that really move his heart. Oldsen may be wowed by the sea, but this is elevated by the love he feels for the mysterious, web-towed marine biologist Marina swimming in it. 

The great irony of the story is that Mac and Oldsen – isolated corporate men – come to want to protect the integrity of the landscape, while Urquhart and villagers are motivated to sell and abandon it as the local economy stalls. They have grown up with the scenery, they have been formed by it, it is in their bones, and they have been blessed by the cast-iron community bonds that such sublime surroundings inspire; it is on account of their total lack of individualism or atomisation that they have the confidence to leave the community behind. 

In the end, it is a fledgling relationship that saves the village. Happer, isolated and lonely at the top of the corporate ladder (so much so that he pays for his quack-psychiatrist to insult and berate him in the hopes of some emotional breakthrough – laugh-out-loud interludes in the storytelling), travels to Ferness himself to close the deal. Negotiations have stalled when Ben the beachcomber refuses to sell his stake in the village, quite an important stake…the beach itself.  

Star obsessed Happer arrives convinced that he can talk Ben round, but rather than a negotiation the interaction becomes a meeting of minds in which Ben convinces Happer that the beauty of the stars is a far better investment than oil. Ferness WILL BE SOLD, but so as to be an unspoiled spot where an astronomy observatory can be built. The unlikely relationship that blossoms between and billionare oil-baron and a bumbling beachcomber saves the landscape and the relationships which Mac has come to love so dearly. 

In a world where technology and social media continue to atomise and divide us, while at the same time giving us simulated experiences and the simulacra of friendship, Local Hero is a gorgeous and glorious antidote. It reminds us of the vital importance and power of human relationships, the pinnacle of our experiences which even mediate the sublime power of Scottish coastal scenery. An important message, and if I may, a comfortably Christian message: for relationship is at the core of who God is as Trinity, relationship is at the core of what God wants as he creates the world to be in communion with him, and relationship is at the core of how God brings about our salvation as he comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ who calls us his brothers and sisters and friends. 

Whoever you are and wherever you are, you should watch Local Hero immediately and be reminded of the beautiful and the sublime power of the natural world, and most importantly of all, the beautiful and the sublime power of human relationships.  

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.