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Why Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping is a stranger, sadder film than it first appears

Set in the 1950s, the movie is a lesson in the suffocating domesticity that women of that time faced. 

By Simran Hans

A picture is worth a thousand words, but what of a poster? The poster for Bill Forsyth’s 1987 film Housekeeping, based on Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated first novel, features an illustration of a youngish woman with curly brown hair. She’s plonked in an upholstered armchair, the armchair marooned in the middle of a flooded living room. Her calves are submerged in water: an errant teapot, two unlabelled tin cans and an umbrella float about her ankles. “The story of a woman slightly distracted by the possibilities of life”, announces the poster’s tag line. Look closely and she’s smirking.

Sylvie (Christine Lahti), the woman in the armchair, is an eccentric and an outsider – a nomad who drifts back to her Pacific Northwest hometown, the fictional mountain valley of Fingerbone, Idaho. There, she assumes care of her orphaned teenage nieces Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), who were raised by their grandmother and great-aunts after their mother’s suicide. It’s perhaps understandable that the poster (also the DVD cover) tries to sell Sylvie as a kind of kooky heroine. In fact, it was Diane Keaton – perhaps the kookiest heroine of them all – who was originally attached to the role (and secured the project’s financing), with Lahti eventually replacing her after she dropped out to star in Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer’s Baby Boom.

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Sylvie arrives at her nieces’ door in an impractical green gown. She has a habit of saving stacks of old newspapers and likes sitting in the dark. She doesn’t question the girls when they skip school to hang out by the lake (“We waited all week to be caught,” says Ruth’s voice-over). The house floods but she’s unfazed, seeing no reason to wade up to higher ground. Yet despite these light-hearted moments, Housekeeping is a stranger, sparser, sadder film than it first appears.

Forsyth, the Glaswegian film-maker known for Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983), channels the spirit of Robinson’s distinctive prose. Clean, plainspoken and characterised by a beatific quality, the author’s writing is permeated by her Calvinist philosophy and Idaho upbringing. The film depicts her Pacific Northwest with a spiritual reverence, foregrounding the grace and glory of the natural world. There’s howling wind and holy sunrises, a haunted, iced-over lake, and a four-day rainstorm of biblical proportions. How the characters navigate the elements is as important as how they interact with each other.

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Set in the 1950s, the film lays out the different paths available to its central women. The spirited Lucille is embarrassed by her weird aunt’s “trashy” proclivities, and eager to fit in with the other girls at school. She makes her own clothes and lusts after Coca-Colas, frustrated by her distracted, daydreaming sister. “I’ve tried to help you, Ruthie. The problem is, you spend too much time looking out of windows,” she says. She ends up leaving her aunt and sister. Ruth, on the other hand, finds a kindred spirit in the restless, itinerant Sylvie and her rejection of the era’s conformity and domesticity. In an early scene, Ruth recalls arguing with Lucille about the colour of their neighbour’s car, the one their late mother drove into Fingerbone lake. Lucille insists it was green; Ruth remembers it as blue. The film vindicates Ruth’s memory.

When we think of a great novel, we might consider the dialogue, the plotting, the characters’ inner worlds. A problem, or at least a tension, in adapting books can occur when fidelity to the prose ends up flattening the whole thing. Housekeeping’s ending, which varies slightly from the novel, is special for the way it deepens Robinson’s text. In the film’s closing scenes, the local townspeople question Sylvie’s ability to successfully keep a house (and indeed, her niece) after the two return from a dangerous trip to a nearby valley. Wary that they might be split up if they stay, the pair burn down the house and bolt.

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In the novel, we learn they lead a happy and well-travelled life. In the film’s final scene, Sylvie and Ruth are “cast out to wander”. They cross a railway bridge in the middle of the night; Forsyth holds the shot for an entire minute as they dissolve into the darkness. “Beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary,” said Robinson herself in an interview with the Paris Review. Housekeeping’s final shot – an empty, glowing train track – is not an extraordinary image. Yet it is beautiful, sublime even, in its mystery. 

“Housekeeping” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus