Homelessness has always been a part of the Christmas story, ever since there was “no room at the inn.” Something about the holiday lends itself to the pathos of those with no family to turn to, no secure place to stay when the weather turns cold and the rest of the society is fretting over celebrations and gifts.
“Hector” is such a story, a tale built around the earthy, working class Scot Peter Mullan, a favorite of Ken Loach, the producers of “West World,” the folks remaking “The Lord of the Rings” and anybody who wants some screen presence that carries “world weariness” about him.
In the title role, he’s a man long “on the road,” hitchhiking around Scotland and England, making treks between Glasgow and London — looking for a meal, a restroom to clean up in and a warm place to sleep.
We meet him as he’s getting an appointment from a nurse, a 60ish man using a crutch in a lifestyle that can ill afford that sort of disability.
He’s been at it for years and years, has his travel companions Dougie (Laurie Ventry) and Hazel (Natalie Gavin) and a spot where they can sleep under cardboard and manage to get by.
But Hector’s close enough to the last place his sister lived that he wants to try and look her up before heading to London for Christmas. There’s a shelter there he’s quite attached to every holiday.
Without a smart phone or computer, one-legged, he hobbles around looking for her with nothing but memories and old, outdated addresses in a dog-eared address book.
Writer-director Jake Gavin sets up several mysteries, the chief of which is one you could ask about any homeless person you meet. What’s Hector’s story? What’s the dark secret that put him here? And what is the urgency of him reconnecting with his family?
Gavin teases out clues as Hector makes an odyssey out of his snowy, rainy tour of the northern UK. A lot of homeless are alcoholics, but “I don’t drink.” We’re spared the American version of homelessness, a baseline of mentally ill people on the streets supplemented by a rising tide of broke people sent there by a collapsing economy. Hazel, a young woman who looks in her 30s and travels with them is another “type.”
“Look at me,” she laments. “I’m not even 18 and my life is already f—-d!”
There’s not a lot of complaining. Movies about those in this situation suggest “choice” as often the cause of their plight. Sure. A friend dies in the cold or some other high risk mishap, ruffians try to rob you of the few things you have, business owners, including a kindly diner waitress, automatically assume the worst.
But Gavin papers Hector’s path with major and minor angels, from the truckers and others (even a guy in a Maserati) who offer him a lift, others who give away rain slickers, food and connive to find a place for him and others to stay.
Sara (Sarah Solemani) is one shelter manager who knows him, but even she doesn’t have any picture of Hector’s “history.” That comes out in tiny drips and dabs.
And through it all Mullan is the weather-worn face of weary depression, resigned to a fate he may have chosen or that may have been thrust on him. He’s been out here longer than we think, and from the ways his search is coming up empty, he may have waited too long to reach back to his past.
“Hector” is also interesting for its portrayal of Britain’s safety net. Even a man in Hector’s position has health care, and even if there aren’t a lot of shelters, there’s a support system. Somehow, I think Gavin has both idealized and whitewashed this subject. No homeless people from other corners of the populace? West Indian? Pakistani or Indian? African?
What we’re given is a character who invites compassion, who makes us hope there’s somebody who cares about him enough to recognize him as kin. And Mullan, our tour guide down this road, is never less than dignified, defeated though the poor man might be.
So we hope and wait and cross our fingers for some lighter moment where Mullan can bend that Scots brogue into a gruff twinkle that he’s let us see in a long and distinguished character actor’s career.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, alcohol abuse
Cast: Peter Mullan, Natalie Gavin, Laurie Ventry, Keith Allen, Ewan Stewart, Sarah Solemani and Gina McKee
Credits: Written and directed by Jake Gavin. A Film Movement+ streaming release.
Running time: 1:27