On a number of past occasions, I’ve written, in various contexts, about what I consider to be that most elusive of on-screen elements: a sense of place. “Sense of place” is the difference between a location serving as mere background, and being a character in its own right. It’s about getting the viewer’s head there, getting us to feel like we know what it’s like to walk that ground, smell those smells, feel the chill or suffocating heat in the air. When I talk “sense of place,” I think of the autumnal Boston of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), the bracing, exhilirating chill of the Rockies in Sydney Pollock’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the urban grit I feel on the back of my neck watching John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), the musty, dusty stale-beer-and-cigarette-smoke feel of Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). It’s a special gift to create that magical sense of having taken us to someplace else in a movie, and it’s something few directors can do, something even the best can’t do it every time.
The key is there is no key. There’s no guaranteed, go-to strategy to pull it off. The right director + the right material + the right crew + the right setting + some other God knows what ingredient, and something alchemical happens where what appears on the screen is more than an image. It’s a portal, and sometimes what we see and feel through that portal is so vivid, so real, it can haunt us, beckon us, entice us.
I have a special fondness for films and TV shows that pull that off, but I’ve never been as enraptured by a setting as I have by those of two UK productions (I know we’re supposed to pick one, but it’s a dead heat for me with these two): the 1967 cult series The Prisoner, and the 1983 Bill Forsyth movie, Local Hero.
The Prisoner – which aired in the U.S. as a CBS replacement series during the summer of 1968 – is one of the all-time great mystifiers. Patrick McGoohan – who, along with George Markstein, created the series – plays an unnamed spy who resigns for unknown reasons and is soon abducted by agencies unknown and taken to The Village where – like the other residents, all one-time spies – he is assigned a number; in his case, Six. Episode by episode, the mysterious masters of The Village seek to break down Number Six’s resistance, but his independence and rebelliousness always prove too strong.
With its highly symbolic yet dauntingly opaque storytelling, and an adamant refusal on the part of the show and its creators to explain themselves, The Prisoner was – and remains – a polarizing bit of television, splitting audiences (unevenly, I should point out) into those who absolutely hated it, and those who, to this day, consider it some of the best and most adventurous commercial television ever made (can you guess which side I’m on?).
Key to making the show work was its major setting: The Village. For its exteriors, the production used the Hotel Portmeirion, an isolated resort on the coast of Wales. Designed and built bit by bit between 1925 and 1975 by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, McGoohan remembered the locale from shooting some of his previous series Danger Man (shown in the U.S. in syndication as Secret Agent) there, and thought its fanciful mix of styles and settings would be perfect for a site that was, in The Prisoner, supposed to have been expressly designed to lull its prisoners into complacency and docility.
From its secluded gardens to its reflecting pool promenade to its dominating domed main building to its haunting tidal flats, there’s a certain semi-fairy tale quality to Portmeirion – and The Village – I’m hard put to find anywhere else on celluloid. Sorry to say, Mr. McGoohan, I wouldn’t mind being a prisoner there myself.
The beach where Number 6 hilariously gets his ass handed to him.
In Local Hero, Peter Riegert plays a Houston oil company sharpie sent to the fictional Scottish village of Ferness to negotiate the purchase of the village from the locals so it can be razed and replaced with a mammoth oil storage facility. The twist is that while Riegert expects resistance from the natives, they want to sell and are just trying to massage Riegert into providing them with as big a payday as possible. While Riegert doesn’t sway from his mission, he nonetheless falls victim to the entrancing, quiet charms of the place and becomes ever more rueful about what’s in store for quiet little Ferness.
It’s hard not to be as bewitched by Ferness as Riegert’s Mac. Cuddled between rolling green hills and the sea, Ferness is a cozy huddle of cottages and small walk-ups, removed from the chaos, the crowd, the frenetic pace, the noise of modern living elsewhere. Ferness is neither some isolated bit of the past or forgotten bit of the present, but its own little self-contained bubble of sweetness and gentility and ease.
Alas, there is no real Ferness. Writer/director Forsyth used several locations to form a composite, but most of the village exteriors were provided by Pennan on Scotland’s Moray Coast.
As it happens, I saw Local Hero after my first trip to Maine to visit a friend acting at a small theater near Berwick. Berwick had the same unwinding effect on me that Ferness had on Mac, and flying back into Newark Airport I felt much as Mac does when he flies back to hustling bustling Houston. I’m not sure if Local Hero is why I’ve maintained such a strong affection for Maine or the other way around, but every time I catch the movie on TV I ache to walk Ferness’ quay, smell the sea roll in, watch the aurora blossom in the evening sky.
– Bill Mesce