Plot: McIntyre (Peter Reigert) is an ambitious executive with a Knox Oil & Gas, based in Houston, Texas. He is dispatched by Happer (Burt Lancaster), the company’s eccentric billionaire chief executive, to a remote corner of Scotland to acquire a fishing village named Ferness and the land surrounding it for an oil refinery and storage facility.
McIntyre, all business, arrives in Ferness with Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), a Knox employee from Scotland. At first, McIntyre finds it hard to adjust to the pace of Ferness. Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the local innkeeper and resident accountant, tells him to enjoy the area for a couple of days before they open negotiations. Gordon tells the villagers about the offer from Knox. They are delighted at the prospect of being bought out and begin to debate the relative merits of a Rolls Royce over a Maserati. The only hitch to finalizing the deal is Ben, a reclusive beachcomber who lives in a shack by the shore. He owns several miles of beach and refuses to sell.
Meanwhile, McIntyre sheds his hurried Houston style and comes to enjoy the tranquil rhythms of the village. In a whisky-induced moment, he tells Urquhart that he wants them to swap jobs. Following Happer’s order to “watch the sky,” he is dazzled by the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, and calls Happer to report.
Happer arrives from Houston. He establishes an instant rapport with Ben, and decides that instead of the refinery, he will create an observatory and marine laboratory — the Happer Institute. McIntyre is sent back to Texas to organize the changes. McIntyre returns to Houston, deeply missing the charm and character of his brief Highland life.
Discussion: McIntyre’s life in Houston is cluttered but empty. He resorts to phoning colleagues seated ten yards away to see if they are free for lunch. he cares a great deal about material things. In Ferness, his expensive watch falls into the water, and he doesn’t miss it. He learns to enjoy collecting shells and examining the night sky.
In a poignant final shot we see McIntyre calling the village’s pay phone.
It rings and rings, but no one answers. The suggestion is that while the village has invaded McIntyre’s soul, he has not had a similar impact in return. McIntyre represented a fleeting interest in lives that run to slower rhythms.
The film is to be noted less for its messages or themes than its magnificent cast of quirky, delightfully observed characters and gorgeous location photography. There is a touch of magic in the story, with a marine biologist who seems to be part mermaid, and a deus ex machina happy ending for most of the characters.
Note: This movie has the feel of a fairy tale, but there are some odd moments that may bother some kids. Happer hires a “therapist” for a bizarre “abuse therapy.” Danny saves a rabbit that is then cooked and served to Danny and McIntyre by Gordon. And the very un-Hollywood resolution, with McIntyre back in Texas by himself, should prompt some discussion of what kids think may happen to him.
Questions for Kids:
· What does McIntyre list as the requirements for an excellent life in Houston? Do the villagers agree with him, since all but Ben are anxious to sell?
· Why does the girl with the punk outfit say that she likes McIntyre?
· Why didn’t Ben want to sell?
· Why, when McIntyre calls the village pay phone at the end of the film, does no one answer?
Connections: Forsyth is also the director of the wonderful “Gregory’s Girl.”
Activities: Find Scotland on a map. Visit a marine study facility like the one they plan to build in Ferness.