June 17, 2011

We have come to identify director Bill Forsyth with the gently peculiar comedy of films such as Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl, and Comfort and Joy. Those movies, and their wonderfully skewed, bittersweet way of seeing, qualified Scotsman Forsyth as one of the current cinema’s most cherishable creators.

We might have suspected that when Forsyth turned his attention to more serious material, his view would be equally offbeat. His newest film is an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and the subject matter is perfectly pitched to Forsyth’s interests: The theme is eccentricity.

The main characters are two adolescent sisters, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill). Orphaned by their mother’s suicide, they take up residence in the fictional town of Fingerbone, somewhere in the wilderness of Washington state (filmed in Nelson, British Columbia, which also served as the setting for Roxanne). This gorgeous location provides the backdrop for the incidents that haunt their imaginations; such as Fingerbone Lake, which serves as a grave for the passengers of a train that went off track and broke through the ice one long-ago winter, or the mountains that drew their famously restless grandfather to the area.

Here they are joined by their Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti, of Swing Shift), and she is the vehicle for the eccentricity.

Aunt Sylvie is different. Her behavior seems slyly whimsical at times; she happily watches television through her neighbor’s window, she collects stacks of newspapers for no discernable reason, and she’s liable to say such subliminally odd things as, “I love traveling by train—especially in the passenger car.”

But Aunt Sylvie is not one of those terminally cute characters who waltz into a child’s life and contrive to change it. She is a darker creation entirely, a perpetual wanderer and outsider who sometimes frightens her teenage charges. At the heart of her, there is something restless and disturbed, although she is caring toward her nieces.

Her presence affects the girls. Lucille, bright and outgoing, is embarrassed by Sylvie’s behavior; she can’t understand why their aunt enjoys sleeping on a park bench in the middle of the day. The more introspective Ruth begins to gravitate toward Sylvie’s method of choosing the road not taken. Their split is exemplified in Lucille’s destruction of some dry flowers preserved in a book. Pragmatic Lucille can’t see the value in a bunch of dead flowers; soulful Ruth looks on in horror.

Housekeeping is a strange movie, in sympathy with those who are drawn to “life’s other side,” in Woody Guthrie’s phrase. But Forsyth refuses to romanticize the call of the road and cry of the train whistle; the stakes are high, the consequences are potentially dangerous. You can’t help but imagine a difficult future for Sylvie and Ruth as they follow their wanderlust; the film’s superb last shot does not present an easy resolution.

But it is natural that Forsyth should cast his feelings with the eccentrics; an indulgence for peculiarity informs his films (provides his governing stylistic method, in fact), and he usually sides with outsiders. At one point the straight-ahead Lucille tells her sisters, “You spend too much time looking out of windows,” as the real world passes. This is a film for people who look out of windows.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

Bill Forsyth: A man who made some lovely films and then apparently got disillusioned with the whole thing. And yet rotten people get movies made all the time. I have to say I have not seen this film since it came out, which is a bummer for me, and it has been gently forgotten in a general way out there. Will a Criterion release change all that? It could, but people say that about dozens of movies (Criterion is the genie’s lamp for cinephiles), and mostly it doesn’t go that way.