Sunday 14 July 2019

1,001 Films: "Housekeeping" (1987)

Adapted from a novel by Marilynne Robinson, Bill Forsyth's American studio debut Housekeeping is a lesson in how to do what would come to be known (rightly or wrongly) as a chick flick with intelligence and integrity. We're at the end of the 1950s, the decade of the teenager, but our young heroines - forthright, upfront Lucille (Andrea Burchill) and the mousier, awkward Ruthie (Sara Walker), who in the eyes of her sis spends "too much time looking out of windows" - find themselves being raised in the remote and deeply conservative community of Fingerbone, Idaho by an eccentric aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti). With her tacit approval of the girls' truancy, and a tendency to keep fish in her coat pockets, Sylvie is nobody in Fingerbone's idea of a responsible guardian - certainly not Lucille's - and her idiosyncratic, instinctive parenting techniques split the sisters, seemingly forever more. A film of a more mainstream sensibility - a Mermaids, say - would let Lahti off the leash, and illustrate Sylvie's dottiness via relentlessly upbeat, pop-scored montages, as all the women on screen settled down for true love with the right, patient man. Yet in the absence of those men - save an antagonistically prying sheriff - Forsyth holds tight focus on the girls, their shifting perceptions of the woman who came to replace a mother they never really knew, and of the sometimes despondent places they inhabit.

It's all narrated by Ruthie the elder, which might have been a detrimental instance of a film telling us rather than showing, were it not for Forsyth's love of (Robinson's?) language: witness the description of a train derailing "like a weasel sliding off a rock". In fact, the film wears its literary origins, its writerly smarts, with great pride: the central unit of individuals choosing (rather than being forced by blood ties) to stick together has something of later Paul Auster novels about it, or you could approach the movie as a female-centred equivalent to Stand by Me. (Both films make memorable use of train tracks.) This is a beat or two slower in pace than the Reiner movie, and Forsyth's wit isn't much called for in an essentially gentle matinee piece, but the storytelling remains quietly radical (events are directed towards "an end to housekeeping", which entails burning down the house), and Walker and Burchill (who all but disappeared after this) create a very credible sisterly relationship hinting at long-standing rivalries and resentments, as well as obvious love and support.

Housekeeping is available on dual format DVD/Blu-Ray through Powerhouse Films. 

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