Many will be familiar with the early films of Bill Forsyth, including the charming Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero. By contrast Housekeeping - his first film to be handled by a major Hollywood studio, is far less well known. It was originally released by Columbia Pictures in the UK during 1988 with little fanfare and slipped quietly away soon afterwards without getting the attention it deserved. These of course were the days before the great multiplex chains became commonplace in many towns and so the latest blockbuster would often get shown ad nauseam in local single screen venues, while worthy smaller films didn’t get much of a look-in.
Housekeeping is based on the highly acclaimed novel by Marilynne Robinson, which the Guardian included in their 100 best novels of all time, describing it as "haunting and poetic". It’s a coming-of-age story set in Idaho during the 1950s about two sisters, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), who were once close but start to grow apart when their free spirited Aunt comes to live with them following their mother’s suicide. The film begins when the siblings, still at a very young age, are driven by their mother Helen (Margot Pinvidic) to grandmother’s house in the small isolated town of Fingerbone. Here the girls are promptly abandoned, before their mother deliberately drives her car straight into a nearby lake and drowns. We learn that it’s the exact same lake that claimed the life of Helen’s father Edmund some 20 years beforehand, when his train derailed and plunged off a bridge into the icy depths below. We never really learn why Helen has chosen to take her own life though, with the narrative recounted through the eyes of Ruth, the elder of the two sisters. Sensibly Forsyth’s screenplay uses narration quite sparingly, avoiding spoon-feeding the audience and allowing us to watch events as they unfold onscreen. The girls live with their grandmother for the next seven years and, as Ruth recalls, they rarely ever encounter anyone on a regular basis under 60 during that time apart from the paper boy. This is partly due to the remote location, with the town surrounded by mountains that are snow covered during the winter months. When the grandmother passes away and two great Aunts balk at the prospect of living in Fingerbone on a long term basis, their mother’s sister Sylvie (Christine Lahti on top form) is drafted in to live with the girls and supposedly take on parenting duties.
When the quirky Sylvie arrives, she is definitely not what her nieces expected. In fact they are not even sure at first whether she will stick around for long without deserting them like their mother had done. It has often been said that we all have our foibles, yet Sylvie seems to exhibit more idiosyncrasies than most. The girls soon find that she has an odd tendency to sit in the dark, hoard enormous piles of newspapers and scrub empty tin cans until they gleam before stacking them in bizarre pyramids around the house. Their easy-going Aunt is also indifferent to their continual truancy, which they find unacceptable, fully expecting to be scolded. Some of her actions cause the sisters more concern, such as when they discover their Aunt walking precariously along the top of a trestle bridge, seemingly risking life and limb. Later in the story when the town and its dwellings flood Sylvie seems more content to dance in the kitchen, splashing around child-like in the ankle-deep water, than rescuing their possessions. Her steadfast refusal to conform raises eyebrows in the close-knit community and becomes a source of embarrassment to her nieces. The out-going Lucille grows to hate the solitude and yearns to fit in and make friends elsewhere. This combined with her Aunt’s inherent lack of housekeeping prompts Lucille to move out and lodge with her teacher, Miss Royce (Jeannette Grittani). Lucille's departure from the house is the first time that we see the normally jovial Sylvie show signs of sadness. It also proves to be a turning point in the story as the shy, socially awkward but more tolerant Ruth grows closer to her eccentric Aunt, accompanying Sylvie on her many jaunts.
The locals start to become increasingly concerned for the welfare of Ruth, as Sylvie’s overly carefree attitude often puts her niece in danger. It is author Robinson's intention that we take the side of the townspeople though, rather than view them as evil meddlers, as they only have Ruth's best interest at heart. An ill-advised late night rowing boat trip in semi-darkness on the foreboding Fingerbone lake is sufficient for the authorities to threaten to separate Ruth and her Aunt. Sylvie loves her nieces and hates the thought of losing her new found family, but equally finds it difficult to completely change her ways, as the story builds towards a dramatic conclusion. Lahti never overplays her part, turning in a wonderful well-judged performance. If she had have hammed it up, the character of Sylvie could have rapidly become irritating and the film fallen flat as a result. Lahti's two young co-stars, Walker and Burchill, are a revelation too. Considering neither of them had much acting experience prior to this film, both are excellent in the roles of Ruth and Lucille. Housekeeping is an offbeat little gem of a film, beautifully written, shot and directed.
This is the first time that Housekeeping has been available in the UK on either DVD or blu-ray disc. The region-free Powerhouse Films release, as part of their Indicator series, is a dual format edition limited to 3,000 copies. Sony's HD remaster was the source and the original stereo audio was remastered at the same time. David Mackenzie carried out the disc authoring/encoding, so you can feel confident that it has been produced to a high standard, as he has been behind hundreds of releases for many other major UK labels including Arrow, BFI and Eureka. The image here is presented in the correct 1.85:1 ratio and shows a very fine level of grain throughout with no signs of damage. A strong level of detail is maintained, even during some of the darker scenes such as those filmed on the lake. The film was actually shot in Nelson, British Columbia, with the rugged location and lake vistas looking particularly stunning here. Similarly the audio has no discernible issues - although music is only used sparingly during the film, the dialogue is always clear and easy to follow.
Powerhouse has included 4 brand new and informative interviews with several key people behind the film.
Bill Forsyth Interview (41 mins approx.)
The Scottish director talks about how he started in the industry, filming several small films back to back in the early eighties, including the acclaimed Gregory’s Girl. He was later introduced to Marilynne Robinson’s book during a trip to New York. When he expressed an interest in directing a film adaptation, apparently it took nearly a year to get the project off the ground. Forsyth explains that it was originally going to be produced by Cannon Films and star Diane Keaton. When Keaton unexpectedly pulled out, Cannon rapidly followed suit. This left the film with an uncertain future until David Puttnam, then CEO of Columbia Pictures, stepped in and saved the day. Forsyth seems more than happy with Christine Lahti replacing Keaton in the lead role, graciously giving her credit for encouraging such naturalistic performances from her two young co-stars, who had little acting experience at that time.
Marilynne Robinson Interview (13 mins approx.)
Housekeeping author Marilynne Robinson discusses her book and the characters. Apparently Robinson had written the novel for her own pleasure and found it taken up by friends, then represented by the New York literary agent Ellen Levine, who promptly sold it to the American literary publishing house Farrar Straus and Giroux (which published it in the States in 1980), and in the UK to Faber.
Michael Coulter Interview (13 mins approx.)
Director of photography Michael Coulter explains how he got started in the business as a gofer working on documentaries. Coulter says that he feels extremely fortunate to have worked with the legendary DoP Chris Menges on an earlier Forsyth film, Comfort and Joy, which provided valuable experience. He also talks of the challenges of shooting in British Columbia.
Micheal Ellis Interview (11 mins approx.)
Editor Michael Ellis talks of how the studio left them alone during production, but he felt they didn’t really push the film enough when it was completed. He also mentions some remarkable pre-CGI visual effects that were utilised in the film, including a convincing scene where the town of Fingerbone is flooded.
BFI Interview with Bill Forsyth
An archive audio interview with director Forsyth, recorded in 1994 as part of the “Storytelling on a Shoestring” season, conducted by Nick James.
A fascinating selection of 50 images taken from the personal collection of crew members. This includes story boards, excerpts of the shooting script and behind the scenes stills of the production.
Limited Edition Collector's Booklet
A lavish 32-page glossy colour booklet includes a 1987 production report by John Pym originally written for Sight & Sound magazine. There is also an interview with director Bill Forsyth and the critical response to the film - including a glowing review from the late great Roger Ebert.
Housekeeping is a wonderful offbeat drama that is well worth tracking down. Powerhouse have given the film their usual care and attention, with a solid transfer and a very generous selection of top quality extras. Highly recommended.