Hector, a heartfelt road movie driven by a tremendous performance from Ken Loach regular Peter Mullan, is an assured debut feature from writer-director Jake Gavin. The photojournalist turned filmmaker lovingly constructs the tale of homeless nomad ‘Hec’ who, estranged from his family in Glasgow, has roamed the UK’s highways and byways for nearly fifteen years. A methodical, gently simmering family drama, it serves up a bittersweet realist alternative to standard festive fare.
Time spent volunteering at Crisis for Christmas reportedly formed the genesis of Gavin’s script and a yearly tradition has Hec make a disjointed pilgrimage south to a London shelter for company, hot food and a bed over the holidays. This time around, though, a worrisome diagnosis from his doctor sees a reflective, philosophical air encroach on his hardy Scottish stoicism and he seeks out reconciliation with long-lost relatives. Mullan, in the titular role, is gruffly charismatic throughout. With a twinkle in his piercing blue eyes, a warm smile from behind thick white whiskers and a kind word for all whom he meets, he demonstrates the kind of benevolence for which another jolly old fellow is famed at this time of year.
However, his jacket is high-vis orange – purloined and donated by a kindly white van man – and an unspoken ailment has Hec hobble from motorway service station to service station as he toils towards his destination. One nice touch incorporated by Gavin is the patchwork of accents encountered during Hec’s hitch-hiking voyage from Glasgow, through Newcastle – where he seeks out his sister (Gina McKee) but is rebuffed by her car salesman husband (Stephen Tompkinson) – and then Liverpool. Indeed, while Hector does focus on its eponymous lead, here lies a subtle portrait of homelessness and the prejudices to which those of no fixed abode are often subjected. The divergent treatment Hec receives will give pause for thought to many.
Without beating a viewer about the head with overplayed songs and clichés, signs of the season offer support to the magical time of year in which Hector is set without distracting from the development of its narrative; the reason for his self-imposed exile is held until the third act for ultimate impact. Similarly, the mournful acoustic guitar score by Emily Barker compliments the gloomy mood, further accentuating cinematographer David Raedeker’s superb, but grimly dull, camerawork. Such is the nature of a transient existence that characters flit in and out of Hector. McKee achieves a lot with the minuscule role she is offered, Ewan Stewart is extremely well cast and likeable as Hec’s younger brother, Keith Allen is a little irritating as a brash ‘Jack the Lad’ and fellow resident of the Christmas shelter and charity worker Sarah Solemani sits firmly at the altruistic end of the spectrum. It is, however, Mullan who steals the show. Framed in almost every image of the film, his quietly nuanced turn is worth the price of admission alone.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens