It’s with towering mountains, lush grass atop rolling hills, and sprigs of greenery waving in the wind that Outlander fills its first frames — and thrusting such eye-catching, heart-swelling splendour to the fore isn’t by accident. The striking sight of the Scottish Highlands is quickly paired with the wistful voice of series protagonist and former combat nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), who speaks of lingering feelings and yearning desires. However, from the moment the show gazes at its stunning setting, its romantic tone is already apparent.
Both love and location are pivotal to Diana Gabaldon’s historical time travel novels, but, adapted for the screen and swimming in vividly shot scenery, the link between the two is even more obvious. Outlander’s trip to the past is sparked by Claire’s visit to the Highlands with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) in an attempt to keep their marriage alive, after all, even if a different kind of passion — in a different era, and with a different man — ultimately awaits.
Claire may start her stay in the picturesque region in 1944, but she’s swiftly whisked back several centuries to 1743, into a dangerous and violent feud between the local Highlanders and the British military, and into the arms of Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). In the process, she also steps into an on-screen area in which amorous affairs run as deep as the valleys between its giant ranges, and where complexities of the heart remain as engrained as the craggy edges of its prominent rock formations.
Indeed, the immortal hero that shares his name with the high-set region proved as affectionate as he is formidable. “There can be only one,” declared the tagline for 1986 fantasy-action effort Highlander — but, while that statement might also seem applicable to the titular character’s emotional range, both sentiment and swords go flying in the Christopher Lambert-starring film. As much as brooding tough guys with a tender centre are a cliché, director Russell Mulcahy grounds his central warrior’s softer side in his natural surroundings. And though hero Connor MacLeod experiences love both in mid-‘80s New York and in the 16th century Highlands, the romance of his homeland can’t be shaken.
In the realm of fact rather than fiction, Her Majesty, Mrs Brown shows Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) making a lasting bond against a Highlands backdrop, albeit of the platonic variety. The British monarchy’s residence at Balmoral Castle and local-born, kilt-wearing servant John Brown (Billy Connelly) both take centre stage in John Madden’s 1997 drama, which peers into one of the 19th century queen’s defining close personal relationships. Here, the Highlands offer solace, a respite from formality, and a place to live and love as free from the constraints of duty as royalty could ever hope to achieve. The contrast between the grounds they ride upon and the structured interiors they otherwise reside within, and between Brown’s friendly demeanour in comparison to the official mannerisms of the rest of the staff, doesn’t escape notice.
For Lars von Trier, the textured landscape of the Highlands reflects love of yet another kind, as viewed with eyes cognisant not only of the freedom inherent in the expansive terrain, but of its accompanying hardships. Charting the efforts of young wife Bess (Emily Watson) as she tries to please her older, oil rig worker husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) in a remote village, Breaking the Waves doesn’t lurk between the two extremes, but embraces both. The sights around them are both inviting and unforgiving; so too, are their choices. And yet, it’s a film of symbiosis: danger leads to relief, and vice versa, as the location silently foreshadows.
In Under the Skin, it’s the magnetism of the region that director Jonathan Glazer hones in on, though his moody, enigmatic adaptation of Michael Farber’s northern Scotland-set science fiction novel isn’t a romance. Still, as the unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) wanders from grey beaches to misty, green forests, enticing men first into a van and then into a black void, the film unpacks the need to connect that not only exists between people, but can be sparked by places.
Indeed, the leap from an alien-like creature roaming around the Highlands preying upon lost, lonely souls to Outlander’s romantic renaissance upon being cast back in time isn’t as far as it might seem. Though varied in narrative, genre and tone, like the heroic antics of Highlander, royal bonding of Her Majesty, Mrs Brown and psychological drama of Breaking the Waves, they share an understanding of the impact an area as entrancing as the Highlands can have, whether inciting lust, inspiring love, sparking a connection, highlighting the complexity of devotion or simply luring someone in.
Outlander airs on SBS Thursdays at 9:30pm. The show is also available to watch on SBS On Demand: