The only reason I put this movie on my list was because of the constant and rapturous love shown to it by BBC film critic Mark Kermode. And having watched it, all I can attribute that reverence to is one of two things.
First is his usual tendency to love anything made by his favourite directors no matter how plain, disappointing or terrible (Pan’s Labyrinth and Warcraft are the two most obvious examples), and I don’t know much about Bill Forsythe, but I think he was from that Powell/Pressburger school.
The second might be the same reason I randomly love Blame it On Rio, Bachelor Party, Snatch or any other movie that’s forgotten by most but which grabbed me and wouldn’t let go – repeated viewings and familiarity since having made them part of the fabric of my movie fandom.
Almost nothing in this film stood out to me, from the characters and dialogue to the story or premise. If you held a gun to my head I’d agree the location was quite evocative, a character in itself, but nothing else made a lasting impact.
The story deals with a Houston oil executive, Mac (Peter Riegert) who comes onto a project the company is pursuing to build a giant oil refinery at the site of a remote Scottish fishing village. He expects it to all happen by phone, fax and a couple of enormous cheques, but is surprised to be summoned to the office of the eccentric CEO, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) and told to go there to broker the deal himself.
Happer is the first errant piece. He’s far less interested in oil than he is in portents in the heavens, telling Mac to watch for various astronomical phenomena it seems he thinks will predict the outcome of the deal.
But Mac goes off to Ferness, his first stop meeting his local handler, Oldsen (a very fresh faced Peter Capaldi), followed by a stop off at a marine science laboratory where Oldsen falls for a no-nonsense, beautiful scientist who crops up again and again in the movie. I thought the scene was about provisioning equipment or plans for the refinery, but what that had to do with a facility researching marine science I never figured out.
Once at the picturesque village, Mac and Oldsen check into their hotel and start to meet some of the colourful locals. The one they get closest to who thankfully isn’t such a caricature as the other townspeople is Urquhart (Denis Lawson, probably at that stage still trying to shake the Star Wars glitterdust from himself), the local hotelier, lawyer and erstwhile mayor.
Urquhart becomes Mac and Oldsen’s main point of contact with the townspeople and rather than the relationship being contentious from the get go, they’re actually on the same side. Urquhart believes the purchase is the best thing for the town but as he warns Mac and Oldsen, the traditionalists who live there won’t give it up easily.
Getting everyone to agree will take time, community engagement and very delicate negotiations he offers to manage rather than let an American blow-in ruffle everyone’s feathers.
If you’ve seen many movies in the last century you’ll expect yet another Avatar archetype, where the outsider tries to defeat an enemy before realising it’s where his heart lives and becomes one of them.
But while Mac doesn’t fall in love with a local lass, throw in his cushy job back in America and become a fisherman it is a feelgood story, albeit in a very weird way. Happer eventually turns up, befriends an itinerant who lives on the beach (and who that Mac and Urquhart have found the biggest holdout tripping the deal up) and decides on one of his eccentric whims to do something completely different to the refinery.
All I can attribute the universal critical love for this film to is that it was effective counter-programming when it came out. Lawson was in Return of the Jedi the same year and all the snooty newspaper film writers at the time probably latched onto anything so visibly placed at the other end of the movie spectrum.
But for the (slightly) interesting premise in the background, the plot just goes in all sorts of weird directions that never made very much sense to me. I never got a handle on whether characters like Happer and Oldsen were bumbling comic relief or played a deeper part in the story and I found Riegert dreadfully inert and devoid of energy as Mac, even though he was supposed to be the active force in everything.
Lawson effectively shook off the yoke of Hollywood blockbusterdom but there’s little chance this film would do that for legions of Gen Xers who knew his face.
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