It must be a challenge to make a compelling film about homelessness. How does one tackle a so very heart-wrenching subject without falling into undue miserabilism? Extraordinarily, Hector, written and directed by Jake Gavin, manages the feat.
The story kicks off with Hector (Peter Mullan), a homeless man wandering between motorway service stations with two friends, Jimbo (Keith Allen) and Hazel (Natalie Gavin). They barely get by, living from of the generosity of others, and their own resourcefulness. In the lead-up to Christmas, Hector hitchhikes to Scotland for a hospital appointment, where he is diagnosed with a severe illness requiring surgery. This gives him the impetus to reach out to his family again.
Gavin’s script is staggering, showing unflinchingly the realities of the trio’s day-to-day lives. They squabble over jackets; juggle lifts from strangers on the highway; and sleep outside in cardboard boxes, or indoors in toilet stalls. Both the kindness of strangers, and the precariousness of their lives are striking.
Gavin also doesn’t hold back from tragedies: a too cold winter night spent outdoors might mean death; a lone walk, a beating; a wrong gesture, suspicion of stealing. Nor does he hesitate to illustrate the ironies of the few institutions Hector and his friends interact with. NHS staff suggests that they get better shoes (how?); the police drives Hector off to their station for questioning, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere; and he faces a Christmas shelter with limited spaces and a harsh entry policy.
Hector’s family, when he finds them, are very real, simultaneously compassionate and damaged. There is a sharp contrast between his siblings, Peter (Ewan Stewart) and Lizzie (Gina McKee), whom he’s just getting to know again, and the warmth of his adopted, once-a-year family from the Christmas shelter. Stewart and Mckee deliver short, but sharp performances.
Through these encounters, Hector's story unravels - making it plain how an individual suffering of mental illness, and without any other support, can fall through the cracks - and never get out of poverty again. Mullan is absolutely masterful as Hector. His performance is a touch proud, humane, and while he has little dialogue, entirely sympathetic. It’s brilliant stuff.
Overall, the film is thoroughly satisfying. It’s harsh enough to feel real, but with enough humanity to hook audiences into the story. True to real life, there is no sugary-sweet happy ending.
Steering clear of oversentimentality, Hector makes for a strong, compelling depiction of the lives of Britain’s poorest. It’s an honest, empathetic Christmas film - reminding us of the absolute importance of helping others, and of having a decent system of social care.