Since its release in 1983, LOCAL HERO has attracted a small, but vocal, audience of cinephiles. Though the understated magical realism of its story and its gorgeous depiction of the Scottish coastline has won it great acclaim, Burt Lancaster’s fans treasure it as one of his finest late-career performances. Just as Lancaster was winding down his career, though, a fellow cast member had started building an impressive filmography of his own. Peter Capaldi, who made his second film appearance as the hapless Oldsen, would go on to become one of the pre-eminent character actors of his generation. American audiences may know him best from IN THE LOOP, in which he played a government spin doctor with a short fuse and an impressive vocabulary. Earlier this summer, Capaldi’s career took another surprising turn when he was announced as the next actor to headline the iconic British sci-fi series Doctor Who.
Those coming to LOCAL HERO from IN THE LOOP (or the series that preceded it, The Thick of It) will appreciate Capaldi’s range. He plays an administrative assistant charged with helping the nebbishy American oil executive “Mac” McIntyre (Peter Riegert) buy a Scottish fishing village. On paper, the one-line description of the character situates Oldsen in the same wheelhouse as the white-collar characters on which he made his name. In the context of the film, however, one can easily imagine Malcolm Tucker from IN THE LOOP eviscerating Oldsen with a string of spittle and a series of well-placed F-bombs.
In the screenplay, writers David Putnam and Ian Smith foreground Oldsen’s camaraderie with McIntyre. Capaldi’s skill as an ensemble player helped him establish a credible chemistry with costar Peter Riegert. An early scene in McIntyre’s Porsche shows how well the pair has been matched. When McIntyre admits that he’s been thinking about “naked girls” (in that exact childlike bluntness), Capaldi’s bashful smile and raise of the eyebrows underscores that these men are two peas in a pod. A scene towards the end in which eccentric CEO Felix Happer has a sudden change of heart gives Capaldi a chance to play opposite Lancaster, and his saucer-eyed facial expression and up-spoken line readings contrast nicely with Lancaster’s assured presence.
Capaldi ably matches his comic timing to the deliberate pacing of the film, and derives much of his humor from reaction shots and well-placed pauses. McIntyre and Oldsen seek lodging for themselves and for a stray rabbit they’ve injured, much to the consternation of the only innkeeper in the town. Midway through the film he serves the pair a “casserole lupin”. Capaldi emphasizes the humor of the scene with a long pause and a sudden gasp of air, and his well-chosen actions don’t draw attention to themselves or pull viewers out of the scene.
Though Bill Forsyth’s unfussy direction, with its long takes and regular-people cast, evolved naturally from the kitchen-sink realism of the 1960s, LOCAL HERO does feature a subplot that nods at the fantastic. Oldsen becomes infatuated with a comely scientist (Jenny Seagrove) who harbors a secret identity. Those hoping for a preview of how Capaldi will interact with his companions on Doctor Who will find his bumbling attempts at flirtation amusing. Far from suavely intoning “dear girl”, Oldsen only learns a key part of her identity while unsuccessfully “getting fresh” with her, and his puzzled reaction shot takes the scene from potentially creepy to giggle-inducing.
At this early stage in his career, Capaldi had not developed the angular, gimlet-eyed good looks that made him a heartthrob among the distinguished set. His expressive, deep-set eyes and pliant lips register as pretty rather than handsome, and if he teased up his thick, slightly disobedient head of hair he might have passed for Robert Smith’s older brother. Instead of playing to his male-ingenue good looks, though, he undercuts his appearance with goggle-eyed reaction shots and fish-faced gasps that precede his every line. The actor appears tall onscreen due to his short torso and lanky build, and Forsyth and his wardrobe crew find great humor in this. Oldsen’s boxy jacket, with its too-short sleeves, accentuates his youth and inexperience. Forsyth frequently photographs Capaldi in long shot running down the beach in his office clothes, and his hunched posture, flailing arms, and wide gait make him look like a penguin who’s trying unsuccessfully to fly.
At the time of its release, LOCAL HERO received rave reviews and won awards from several critics’ organizations for its screenplay. Because it came out at a time when home video and cable TV were growing in popularity, it was able to find a perennial audience in the thirty years since its initial theatrical run. While the cast may not have become cinematic icons in line with Burt Lancaster, they have found steady work as well-regarded “hey, it’s that guy” figures. Still, keep an eye on this Peter Capaldi fellow. It looks like he’s going places.