Sunday, 23 November 2014

Housekeeping (1987)

Director Bill Forsyth seldom managed to convince audiences that his distinctive storytelling style and quirky outlook on life, seen previously in Scottish Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, could be translated to the US but he succeeded here in his little seen American debut, the offbeat and bewitching Housekeeping.

It's a strange yet enchanting tale concerning two young sisters Ruthie and Lucille (Sara Walker and Andrea Burchill, both of whom have frustratingly faded into obscurity or retired from acting altogether) and their eccentric, mysterious Aunt Sylvie played perfectly by Christine Lahti.  We first meet the sisters as infants in the late 1940s, taken on a sudden trip out by their mother to the sleepy curious but conventional Pacific Northwestern town of Fingerbone - a town famous for and somewhat haunted by a rail disaster in its past - ostensibly to visit their grandmother. Soon after they arrive however the girls mother leaves them to commits suicide, leaving her daughters in the care of their grandmother, elderly great-aunts and lastly the once estranged and forever strange sister of their late mother, Sylvie. An ambiguous guardian, Sylvie has a penchant for collecting newspapers and tin cans, seems unperturbed when their home is flooded and is drawn to the railways and given to taking long walks which lead to the fearful suspicion for the girls, as they worry she too is suicidal or may leave them. Ultimately as the girls grow older and we reach the mid 1950s, Lucille grows apart from Sylvie seeing her eccentricity as strange and restricting her desire to be popular or 'normal' whilst the more introverted Ruthie grows closer, finding her behaviour compelling and attractive.

Of course it helps that, for his first US production and his first non original work, Forsyth chose a novel by Marilynne Robinson that shares much of his own peculiarly charming and unconventional, almost magical world view. In adapting the novel, Forsyth concentrates on characters who seem inwardly amused by their own eccentricity or behaviour and largely keep themselves to themselves, leading them to feel curiously surprised when others try to intervene in their lives. When the townsfolk of Fingerbone become concerned enough to offer help to Sylvie and her charges, Lahti's cannily depicts a bemused and quiet affront which remains beautifully infused by her slyly secret inner privacy and amusement.  

Beautifully shot in British Columbia and extremely evocative, Housekeeping is a whimsical feature that is truly one of a kind. It can be described I guess as being a film about someone who is, to all intents and purposes, a madwoman but her actions are endearingly shown as a positive. For Forsyth, one man's normal is another's insane and its that kind of theme that runs most satisfyingly through his best work. Housekeeping can stand comfortably in that category.

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