12 Days of Netflix: Hector
Helen Archer | On 23, Dec 2016
Director: Jake Gavin
Cast: Peter Mullan, Keith Allen, Natalie Gavin
Watch Hector online in the UK: Netflix UK
Hector is a Christmas film in the broadest sense of the word. There are no magical scenes of snowy landscapes, no perfectly wrapped presents under a beautifully decorated tree, no eggnog by roaring fires. It’s set in the lead-up to the 25th of December, and while we catch the occasional glimpse of some mangy tinsel, and the faint tinny sound of Christmas songs on the transistor radio of a soulless car showroom, the traditional good cheer and abundance of the festive season is somewhat muted.
First-time writer/director Jake Gavin has chosen to use Christmas Day, here, as a kind of holy grail, with Peter Mullen’s Hector making his annual pilgrimage to the London homeless hostel he traditionally spends it in. Towards the end of the film, there will be a raggle-taggle dinner, complete with crackers, carol singers, and paper hats. But it is something of a gruelling journey getting there.
The last 15 years of Hector’s life have been spent in service stations and on the hard shoulder of motorways, as he hitches the length of Britain for no discernible purpose. In the 90-minute running time, we join him as he beds down in the concrete underpasses of Glasgow, Newcastle, and Liverpool, in temperatures cold enough to freeze to death, joined occasionally by friends and erstwhile companions Dougie (Laurie Ventry) and Hazel (Natalie Gavin).
Though life is hard, Hector is fairly blessed by meeting, on the whole, good-hearted and kindly people, and the film is punctuated with random encounters as people offer him lifts and small kindnesses – free tea and shortbread, and fluorescent, fleeced jackets to keep him warm – then disappear, never to be seen again, as he continues on his way. This year, thanks to ominous-sounding yet unspecified health problems, he decides to attempt to track down his brother and sister, whom he hasn’t seen since becoming homeless.
Perhaps that’s the Christmassy part of it – this longing to be reunited with family, this quest which seems, in the main, to be pretty light on many of the harsh realities of homelessness. Save for a run-in with two Glasgow neds, and a tragedy that strikes fairly early on, Hector doesn’t face too much in the way of danger. Looking like a down-on-his-luck Santa Claus, just about everyone is good to Hector, other than his gormless brother-in-law (Stephen Tomlinson), whom Hector approaches in an effort to get in touch with his sister.
There are some wonderful performances here, from Sarah Solemani as Sara, to Natalie Gavin as Hazel, both of whom manage to convey backstory with little more than a half-finished sentence, or, in Gavin’s case, the instinctive, automatic flinching away from human touch. Keith Allen and John Colleary provide the laughs at the hostel’s Christmas dinner, while Gina McKee and Ewan Stewart make the most of a script that’s somewhat underdeveloped.
What the films does do – subtly but effectively – is demonstrate that each person on the street has their own individual story as to what brought them there, and that while most of them are unknowable, they are each unique in their tragedy. These individual performances – the last departing glances from young men who may or may not be back for Christmas, depending on whether they can survive another year on the streets, or the young women who feel, at the age of 17, that life isn’t worth living – subtly suggest mental health problems, family breakdowns, abuse and dependency, people without safety nets in a wider society that doesn’t care, but within a smaller network of people who do.
If Ken Loach were to make a Christmas film, it would look something like this, but Hector lacks Loach’s pure visceral anger. While you can’t in all honesty describe it as ‘feel good’, it does seem to shy away from some of the tougher questions it posits. Within its framework, Hector is as gentle as it could reasonably be, and might act as the perfect palate cleanser to the saccharine-heavy films Christmas audiences are so accustomed to.
Hector is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.