'Hector': Edinburgh Review

Courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival
A solid showcase for Peter Mullan's talents.

Peter Mullan stars as a homeless man in the debut feature by photographer Jake Gavin, world-premiering in competition at the Scottish festival.

A homeless hero goes on a personal odyssey through 21st century Britain in Jake Gavin's Hector, a quietly affecting addition to the country's admirable social-realist tradition. Sensibly placing the ever-dependable Peter Mullan front-and-center throughout as the eponymous senior citizen, first-time writer-director Gavin — previously best known as a photographer — makes a highly encouraging transition to moving images with this low-budget road movie.

Warmly received when world-premiering at Edinburgh, the largely Scottish production is strong enough to justify U.K. theatrical distribution — especially north of the border — while further afield its prospects would be boosted by awards attention for Mullan. Prized in Venice (The Magdalene Sisters) and San Sebastian (Neds) as a director — and winner of Cannes' best actor prize for Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe in 1998 — Mullan is a strong contender in EIFF's best performance in a British feature category and could be set for a banner year with Terence Davies' eagerly anticipated Sunset Song rumored for a high-profile Venice bow.

Noted both for his moody, foggy landscapes and intimate portraiture, Gavin combines the two strands of his photographic output here. Working with cinematographer David Raedeker, he alternates between widescreen images that place the characters within their environments and tighter close-ups that convey the human toll of living rough. On that front Mullan brings an impressively heavy physicality to the sixtysomething Hector, who walks with the aid of an elbow-crutch and exudes a world-weariness counterbalanced by a doughty internal fortitude.

Much less abrasive than Mullan's typical screen persona, the long-teetotaling Hector is a "broken soul" still recovering from the impact of a family tragedy some 15 years before, and now — increasingly conscious of his frailty and mortality — seeking to reestablish long-abandoned bonds with his two far-away siblings. Heading south from Scotland for his traditional Christmas stay in a London hostel, Hector depends on the kindness of strangers as he goes from Newcastle (where his sister lives) to Liverpool and finally to the British capital (home of his brother).

Gavin's achievement here is to craft a drama that conveys the hard-knock realities of homelessness while maintaining a gentle, wry and sometimes humorous tone — a tricky balancing act that even experienced filmmakers can find problematic. Life on the streets is hazardous and, we see, often lethal: One of Hector's pals even freezes to death in his sleep, although once the action moves to England the December weather takes a conspicuous turn for the sunny and summery. The director makes judicious use of soundtrack contributions by Australian singer-songwriter Emily Barker, with effectively restrained strings subtly underlining the bittersweet aspects of Hector's unpredictable, nomadic existence.

The film is quietly, unfussily and likeably humanistic in its celebration of friendship, community and solidarity, as encapsulated by Sarah Solemani's chummily empathetic hostel worker Sara. With the emphasis on crafting a nuanced character study of a representative individual, there isn't very much on the social/political causes of homelessness — in the U.K. as elsewhere a byproduct of structural forces and changes that on current evidence is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

In an ideal world, Gavin's debut would make a similar impact to Loach's seminal 1966 TV play Cathy Come Home, which moved homelessness high up the political agenda and yielded immediate and concrete results. But as a clear-eyed, mature and warm contribution to the ongoing debate, Hector is, in the current chilly climate, more than welcome.

Production company: Product of Malitsky
Cast: Peter Mullan, Ewan Stewart, Sarah Solemani, Natalie Gavin, Keith Allen, Stephen Tompkinson, Gina McKee
Director-screenwriter: Jake Gavin
Producer: Stephen Malit
Executive producers: Ahmed Ahmadzadeh, Kirsty Bell, Nicky Kentish Barnes. Kate McCreery
Cinematographer: David Raedeker
Production designer: Byron Broadbent
Costume designer: Denise Coombes
Editor: Guy Bensley
Composer: Emily Barker
Casting: Amy Hubbard
Sales: Urban Distribution International, Montreuil, Paris
No Rating, 87 minutes