Bill Forsyth
Release Year:
Marilynne Robinson (novel), Bill Forsyth (screenplay)
Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill, Barbara Reese, Anne Pitoniak,
Screening Date:
  • 20 Feb 2018
  • Categories:

    Pacific Northwest, 1955. Two young sisters wind up living with their eccentric, free-spirited Aunt Sylvie. When the townspeople decide that Sylvie must clean up her act, it seems her fantasy world must end. Low-key, intelligent, incisive examination of human behavior.

    What's this?
    F-Rated Bronze

    Film Notes

    In a land where the people are narrow and suspicious, where do they draw the line between madness and sweetness? Between those who are unable to conform to society’s norm and those who simply choose not to, because their dreamy private world is more alluring? That is one of the many questions asked, and not exactly answered, in Bill Forsyth’s “Housekeeping,” which is one of the strangest and best films of the year. The movie, set some 30 or 40 years ago in the Pacific Northwest, tells the story of two young girls who are taken on a sudden and puzzling motor trip by their mother to visit a relative. Soon after they arrive, their mother commits suicide and the girls are left to be raised by elderly relatives. A few years later, their mother’s sister, their Aunt Sylvie, arrives to look after them. Sylvie, who is played by Christine Lahti as a mixture of bemusement and wry reflection, is not an ordinary person. She likes to sit in the dusk so much that she never turns the lights on. She likes to go for long, meandering walks. She collects enormous piles of newspapers and hundreds of tin cans - carefully washing off their labels and then polishing them and arranging them in gleaming pyramids. She is nice to everyone and generally seems cheerful, but there is an enchantment about her that some people find suspicious. Indeed, even her two young nieces are divided. One finds her “funny,” and the other loves her. Eventually the two sisters will take separate paths in life because they differ about Sylvie. At first, when they are younger, she simply represents reality to them. As they grow older and begin to attend high school, however, one of the girls wants to be “popular” and resents having a weird aunt at home, while the other girl draws herself into Sylvie’s dream. The townspeople are not evil, merely conventional and “concerned.” Parties of church ladies visit to see if they can “help.” The sheriff eventually gets involved. But “Housekeeping” is not a realistic movie, not one of those disease-of-the-week docudramas with a tidy solution. It is funnier, more offbeat, and too enchanting to ever qualify on those terms. Forsyth, the writer and director, has made all of his previous films in Scotland (they make a list of whimsical, completely original comedies: “Gregory’s Girl,” “Local Hero,” “Comfort and Joy,” “That Sinking Feeling”). For his first North American production, he began with a novel by Marilynne Robinson that embodies some of his own notions, such as that certain people grow so amused by their own conceits that they cannot be bothered to pay lip service to yours. In Lahti, he has found the right actress to embody this idea. Although she has been excellent in a number of realistic roles (she was Gary Gilmore’s sister in “The Executioner’s Song” and Goldie Hawn’s best friend in “Swing Shift”), there is something resolutely private about her, a sort of secret smile that is just right for Sylvie. The role requires her to find a delicate line; she must not seem too mad or willful, or the whole charm of the story will be lost. And although there are times when she seems to be indifferent to her nieces, she never seems not to love them. Forsyth has surrounded that love with some extraordinary images, which help to create the magical feeling of the film. The action takes place in a house near a lake that is crossed by a majestic, forbidding railroad bridge. It is a local legend that one night decades ago, a passenger train slipped ever so lazily off the line and plunged down, down, into the icy waters of the frozen lake. The notion of the passengers in their warm, well-lit carriages, plunging down to their final destination, is one that Forsyth somehow turns from a tragedy into a notion of doomed beauty. And the bridge becomes important at several moments in the film, especially the last one. The location where the film was shot (British Columbia) and the production design by Adrienne Atkinson are also evocative. It is important that the action takes place in a small, isolated community, in a place cut off from the world where whimsies can flourish and private notions can survive. At the end of the film, I was quietly astonished. I had seen a film that could perhaps be described as being about a madwoman, but I had seen a character who seemed closer to a mystic, or a saint.

    Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, January 22, 1988

    'HOUSEKEEPING,' Bill Forsyth's fine adaptation of Marilynne Robinson's 1981 novel, is a clear-eyed, brow-furrowed, haunting comedy about impossible attachments and doomed affection in a world divided between two kinds of people. On one side are those who live always in transit. They go through life as if they were passengers in leaky rowboats, riding out a permanent flood. They pass aimlessly through a succession of communities that, for them, remain as unknowable as the interiors of the houses whose roofs they float by. Straddling the roofs, or hanging onto the upper branches of trees, sometimes looking exceedingly comic in their desperation, are the would-be survivors of the flood, those who persevere in their attempts to impose reason and order on random existence. To the people in the rowboats they call out warnings of unknown dangers, only to be acknowledged by smiles or shrugs. The smiles and shrugs, roughly translated, mean that anything is better than living one's life hanging onto a tree. 'Housekeeping,' set in the 1950's in a small Western town named Fingerbone, is about two sisters, Ruth, 15, and Lucille, 13, who've been raised by their grandmother after being abandoned by their voyaging mother. With the death of the old lady, who 'spent all her life braiding hair and whitening shoes,' the girls are briefly cared for by two fluttery great-aunts, and then by their mother's wandering sister, Sylvie (Christine Lahti). Like their mother, whom they now barely remember, Sylvie is kind and sweet and always a little distant. The girls, in some panic, recognize the symptoms. Sylvie never takes off her coat. When Sylvie leaves the house her second morning home, Ruth and Lucille realize she's headed for the railroad station and another departure. They trail her and more or less coerce her into staying in town. Life with Sylvie is unpredictable. It's just a little too unpredictable for the fastidious Lucille (Andrea Burchill), who'd like to live the way other people do. When Ruth (Sara Walker) or Lucille skips classes, Sylvie writes outrageously dramatic, transparently false descriptions of the illness. Says Ruth, the soundtrack narrator, 'Sylvie's attitude toward truancy was unsatisfactory.' Sylvie doesn't much care what the girls do during the day, as long as they don't hurt themselves. Her own days are totally without structure. Sometimes she steals a boat and goes for long outings across Fingerbone's mountain lake, once returning with a fish sticking out of her pocket. She mortifies Lucille by snoozing, like a hobo, in the sun on a park bench in the middle of town. The housework goes undone. Sylvie never throws out old newspapers and has a peculiar fondness for tin cans, once she's soaked off the labels. Eventually, there are pretty stacks of shiny cans everywhere. Sylvie takes no interest in her old acquaintances in Fingerbone, but talks with passing strangers, including a woman from South Dakota who, riding the rails, is en route to Portland for her cousin's execution. 'Why do you get involved with such trashy people?' says Lucille. 'I wouldn't say 'trashy,' ' Sylvie replies with utter calm. 'She didn't strangle anybody.' At the end of the day, Sylvie likes to sit in the dark. About halfway through 'Housekeeping,' one may have the awful fear that the movie is going to turn into one of those sentimental comedies - so popular with the squarest Broadway audiences - about the lovability of essentially harmless, noisily self-proclaimed eccentrics. There's no need to worry. 'Housekeeping' is far too rigorously observed to slip into such nonsense. Further, in Sylvie, as written and directed by Mr. Forsyth and as played by Miss Lahti, the film has someone who's neither harmless nor, in reality, merely eccentric. She's something quite other, possibily quite mad. Though one feels she could function in the world as Lucille wants to and the rest of us do, Sylvie elects not to, with a blithe manner that's initially engaging and, at the end, profoundly disturbing. She's a siren of the open road. Miss Lahti, who was nominated for an Oscar for 'Swing Shift,' has the role of her film career to date, and she's spellbinding. Sylvie is a beauty even when she looks a mess. She enters the movie quietly, as if by a side entrance, so it takes some time to feel the strength of her presence, which, once established, dominates the film. When she's off-screen, one tends to worry about what she's up to. When she's on-screen, one searches for clues to what's going on in the seeming serenity of her mind. 'Housekeeping' is by far the most accomplished comedy yet made by Mr. Forsyth, the Scottish director who first came onto the international scene with 'Gregory's Girl' and 'Local Hero.' Miss Robinson's novel has provided him with material in which the mysterious is an essential component of the mundane, and not simply a leavening agent. Though it's full of moments of real sadness, 'Housekeeping' is also startlingly funny. Beginning with Miss Lahti, every member of the cast is special. However, pay special attention to Miss Walker, as the tall, gawky Ruth, who walks always with her head down, in shyness, and becomes mesmerized by Sylvie, and Miss Burchill, as the younger sister who longs, with breaking heart, to be totally, boringly ordinary. Mr. Forsyth somehow manages to make us care equally for the sister who chooses to disappear in a passing rowboat, and the one who clings to the roof top, hoping the flood waters will recede.

    VINCENT CANBY, The New York Times, November 25, 1987.

    Extract from an article by Jonathon Coe when he was asked to be guest director for a festival dedicated to films based on books,...he set out to disprove the adage that great literature makes terrible movies. ...So much of the best modern fiction tends towards ambiguity and open-endedness, while increasingly the commercial cinema has a fetish for closure and ends neatly tied. This might lead us to a partial explanation for the disappearance into near-oblivion of what I consider to be one of the best adaptations of a modern novel ever made. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping was published in 1981 and, 30 years on, has already achieved the status of a minor classic. Bill Forsyth's film version, made in 1987, is an unswervingly faithful adaptation, preserving the narrative shape, the tone, the desolate backwoods atmosphere, even finding visual correlatives for Robinson's scriptural, luminous prose. And yet it has been almost completely forgotten. It's never been available on DVD, and none of the Robinson fans I've spoken to recently, either in Britain or America, seems to be aware of it. The film stars Christine Lahti as Sylvie, a wanderer and free spirit who finds herself, through a series of family tragedies, summoned back to Fingerbone, Idaho, to look after her orphaned nieces, Ruth and Lucille. The novel is narrated by Ruth, in the first person: Sylvie may be the main focus of attention but we see her always from the child's wondering point of view. Naive, trusting, optimistic, Sylvie herself is almost as childlike as the girls she has been charged to look after, and the two sisters react to her in different ways. The conformist Lucille, the younger of the two, finds her erratic behaviour an embarrassment, while for Ruth she becomes a sort of role model, a symbol of how life might be lived more freely and intensely than she had thought possible. One of the unusual things about Housekeeping the movie is that it's an adaptation made by someone not previously known for adaptations – in this case, a writer/director of original screenplays who had already staked out a highly personal territory. Forsyth became famous for his second feature, the charming comedy Gregory's Girl, in the early 1980s (his affinity with young actors well in evidence even then) before scoring a considerable commercial success with Local Hero, which was followed by the more introverted and melancholy Comfort and Joy. Housekeeping, the first fruit of his troubled American career, came as a surprise to most of his admirers. His first four films had established him as something unusual in British cinema – a genuine auteur, with a distinctive tone and point of view – and yet this project required him to submerge his own creative voice, putting himself entirely at the service of another artist's vision. He seems to have done this quite willingly, with a commitment born out of passionate admiration for Robinson's novel. At just over 200 pages, with a broadly linear narrative, the book doesn't pose the same kind of structural or compression challenges that something like Barney's Version throws up. Forsyth uses voiceover, but uses it sparingly: its point being to establish Ruth as the "author" of the narrative, rather than to allow copious quotation from Robinson's prose (tempting though that may have been). Loose-limbed, intimate, rigorously economical in its dialogue and its storytelling, Housekeeping deserves the highest compliment an adaptation can attract: it doesn't feel like an adaptation at all. It doesn't feel "literary". Its most magical sequence shows Ruth (playing truant from school) setting out with Sylvie to explore a secret place her aunt has found – "stunted orchard and lilacs and stone doorstep and fallen house, all white with a brine of frost" – and then spending a whole night out on the lake. Of course, you don't get any of the "many, many words", judiciously chosen and crafted, with which Marilynne Robinson paints this scene, taking in such borderline-surreal details as the twigs of apple trees festooned with marshmallows which Sylvie has placed there in order to entice wild children out of their mountain hiding-places. Instead, you get the British Columbian landscape photographed in all its dappled beauty by Michael Coulter, you get Mike Gibbs's eerie, subtly dissonant music (scored for strings only), and the utterly truthful, unaffected performances of Lahti and the young Sara Walker. And for once, it feels like a fair exchange. The novel ends – if I'm reading it correctly – on a note of poised ambiguity. Having alienated the townspeople, Sylvie and Ruth make a daring escape by nightfall across the narrow, precarious railway bridge which extends for miles across the lake. Do they make it, or do they die in the attempt? Robinson does not quite let us know, and neither does Forsyth, ending his film on the dark, tantalising image of the two fugitives setting forth on to the bridge, their figures dwarfed by the parallel lines of track receding ahead of them into infinite blackness. It's a comfortless but arresting image, typical of a film which – like the novel – refuses classification either as comedy, tragedy, or anything in between. There lies its greatness – and there, as far as Hollywood is concerned, lies its failure. In an unhappily prophetic 1985 interview, Forsyth – then scouting locations for the film – reflected that, with loose cannons like him, studios were always going to "worry that you are going to get involved in something that is unwatchable or, worse, unmarketable. Unmarketable is a much more worrying term for them." Housekeeping's disappearance from the collective memory bank of most film-goers proves nothing except that, in this case, Forsyth did make a truly unmarketable film. But he also did the right thing. He honoured his source material; and incidentally proved that even Hitchcock – now and again – could be wrong.

    Jonathan Coe, The Guardian, April 1 2011.

    What you thought about Housekeeping

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    16 (20%) 20 (25%) 18 (23%) 16 (20%) 10 (13%)
    Total Number of Responses: 80
    Film Score (0-5): 3.20

    Collated Response Comments

    145 came along last week and 80 of you provide a comment on the film (55%). Housekeeping has replaced Aquarius as the least popular film of the season so far. Clearly the film did not resonate favourably with the majority of you and I show below a range of your comments. “I'd rate this as good. At times I found the pace of the film too slow but I think that some of the scenes in it will stay with me for a long time, particularly the scene we don't get to see of the initial trauma of the train falling into the frozen lake”. “I came along as a guest. I don't usually enjoy film adaptations of books, particularly books that I have enjoyed reading. For me Bill Forsyth's film did manage to portray the atmosphere of the book which when I read it seemed rather sad and hopeless, but with a beautiful narrative. How he managed to convey the author's vision is wonderful. I really enjoyed this film, wouldn't have had the opportunity to see it otherwise, so thanks to my friend who invited me and thanks to the Film Society for showing it!” “Some nice scenery but apart from that it was too long, boring, monotonous with a poor storyline and I found it difficult to understand much of the dialogue. I was glad when it finished!!” “This film was awful; badly cast, poorly acted, dreary and even the cinematography could have been so much better. It was supposed to be cold but it didn't 'feel' cold as no-one seemed to be dressed for it, not counting the scenes where this was highlighted. There were all sorts of issues with the home conditions that did not ring true - for example the papers suddenly built up exponentially and just as suddenly disappeared overnight and the girls were always immaculately dressed in ironed, clean clothes. The characters were not convincing and did not draw much emotion from me except perhaps irritation, especially Sylvie. I have not read the book but am truly tempted to as I would hope that the character development and the relationships would be much better described than in the film”. “The relationships between the two young sisters with each other and their Aunt were beautifully portrayed in what seemed a gentle film with some wonderful scenery, but also with some very dark undercurrents - the mother’s suicide, the train crash and the "madness" which ran in the family. Overall I very much enjoyed this film but the sound quality was not great at times - is it the film or the sound system which causes these difficulties?” “Understated but beautiful. Fantastic scenes of the lake, railway etc., moody”. “Very disturbing – can people actually be so unnoticed? A half year missing school and nobody checking up? Wonderful cinematography – what marvellous scenery”. “Beautifully filmed and empathetic characters. Very haunting”. “Glad I had read the book as the underlying theme and purpose struck me as very difficult to convey on film”. “As good as the book”. “Meditative, lingering, absorbing. Marvellous links between town, actors and landscape”. “A puzzling and affecting film that stays with you. Perhaps it was the literary introduction but it reminded me more of the fiction of Garrison Keillor and particularly John Cheever than anything cinematic. Having given it a night for consideration it still seems perfectly, unsettlingly, balanced between a celebration of freedom and lack of attachment and the restlessness of the disturbed. No easy conclusions here. Christine Lahti is extraordinary; is her tremulous and charming smile a delight in all things or a mask to cover some emotional damage? Is she cursed with the same self-destructive drive as her sister or is she some kind of shaman detached from the chains that bind the rest of us? She is somewhat reminiscent in this respect of the Fulton Mackay role in ‘Local Hero’, another film questioning our assumptions about what is important in life. Deeply intriguing, I immediately want to see it again”. “Although they are a bit negative, we are most appreciative of all the work that goes into choosing the films – and so far this year has been a cracker with a clear majority of the ones we have seen being Excellent or Very Good”. “Appalling sound. Volume fine but muffled and/or poor diction – very difficult to follow what they were saying (for once I wish there had been subtitles!). Far too long and monotonous. Disjointed and unconvincing story line. If it was a good adaptation, at least it has saved me the bother of reading the book”. “Is there in all of us (or maybe I mean all of us Brits) a non-conformist streak that can relate to Sylvie’s world? Or maybe it’s just me. ‘Strange’ seemed to be the word on peoples’ lips as it finished, and it is only afterwards perhaps that we appreciate some of the details (the local lads who help to push the mother’s car out of the mud so it can drive over the cliff; the household possessions that float out of the cupboard after being swept out of sight). The film narrowly misses ’excellent’ in part because of a slightly jerky storyline, but the acting is very good and the concept of these characters sitting so awkwardly in the rural Idaho community is delicious. The setting of lake and bridge is perfect. Like all the best art, we have to let the ideas settle before we come to a conclusion. “I found this film slow, dreary and directionless in terms of plot. It was difficult to reconcile the girls' home situation with the way they were always immaculately turned out and their eccentric aunt likewise who was not nearly eccentric enough to be convincing. The ending was thoroughly dissatisfying and inconclusive albeit very welcome”. “But I do want Housekeeping 2”. “Very sad, tragic. Exposing different ways the mind deals with life’s experiences. We are all product of our experiences and translate them in very different ways”. “Now I must read the book”. “I have never seen a movie like that before! Wonderful cinematography. I won’t forget it. Wrong title – Housekeeping!”. “Very good performances by all three lead actors”. “Beautifully acted and intriguing but didn’t really go anywhere. Really could not make out the storyline”. “Strange but somewhat compelling film! I thought Christine Lahti was a little too glamourous for the role!! Plus I would like to know what they did for money”. “Some brilliant images – e.g. railway line with the receding figures at the end. Sylvie was played quite remarkably – memorable loping run!”. “Thought provoking”. Well what a very strange film. At the start I thought this is going to be excellent but by the end I had changed my mind to good”. “Different and challenging. Some conform – some cannot conform! A surreal ending – which seemed to be the beginning of a sequel!”. “A strange story but very atmospheric. Wonderfully acted. Pity about the ending”. “A little weird but great!” “”Good acting – excellent portrayal of the book. Historically authentic”. “Some dialogue difficult to follow”. “Sensitive treatment of social divisions…too long and too literal rather than literary”. “Quite an interesting look at loneliness, loss and coping with mental health issues in small town USA”. “Great acting. Stayed awake”. “Yet another bad soundtrack – it’s getting to be a habit. If it goes on I doubt you’ll see me next year”."A not entirely successful adaptation (probably made a great book). But totally engaging and weirdly believable characters”. “Very poor sound. It has to get better! Rather boring until the very end. A shame”. “Best bit was the counterbalanced trapdoor on the stairs”. “A story providing lots of food for thought. But I found I could not engage with the characters”. “”Asks interesting questions about conformity and eccentricity. An interesting study of characters but rather slow and ultimately unsatisfying as a story”. “It reminds me of reading a book and not loving it but need to persist to the end. This film was too slow- and felt much older than a 1987 film in terms of editing music etc.. But an excellent performance by Sylvie”. “They were bored and so was I. Why did they want to make a film of it?”. “An absolutely pointless film. The opposite of an action film. ~the train falling into the lake would have been more interesting”. “Well they finally went off the rails! Far too long, far too slow. What was it all about?”. “It may score high as a good book adaptation but I can see why he took a break from film making!” “Very boring. Thank God I fell asleep and missed most of it”. “Some evocative scenes, but goodness did it drag – and the irrationality hardly commanded attention. Possibly an excellent adaptation of the book, but one wondered why they bothered”. “I could not relate to the story. Tedious dialogue not clear to me”. “About ten eggs short of a dozen”. “It could have been so much more. Just as you thought some depth was being formed it faded away”. "Arguably the worst film you have shown so far. At least I was able to sleep for some of it”. “Two hours of my life I’ll never get back, but every cloud…at least the director isn’t making movies anymore”. “I don’t know if the novel is any good, but it should never have been turned into a film. The story lacks dramatic structure; the development of the characters is poor and the story itself is insubstantial. And I’d better refrain from commenting on the direction”. “One big yawn”. “Too slow for me”. “An interesting story of family madness”. “Frightful and awful”. “Totally uninteresting. What kind of story is this? Waste of time”. “I can see why Bill Forsyth took a break from film making. “A minor classic”?? You have got to be joking!”

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