Scottish film maker Bill Forsyth is something of a cock-eyed naturalist. He's an expert at creating landscapes that seem both utterly real and laughably askew. A phantom rabbit in the road, an ice cream war in Glasgow, mermaids and offshore oil. . . .
Forsyth takes half-cracked elements like these and illuminates them with dry, sunny understatement. He presents the surreal, or the obsessive, in such a placid, wide-eyed manner that you accept it absolutely. At his best, he's a rustic magician pulling fantastical rabbits out of a charmingly frayed hat.
"Housekeeping," his first wholly American film--made under the late, creatively fertile David Puttnam regime at Columbia--seems at first a grimmer, bleaker affair. It begins with a suicide and ends with a family in dissolution and flight. It's not a fantasy, and it deals, like Alan Pakula's "Orphans," with people sealed off from life: orphans, outcasts, an outlaw.
But Forsyth--though his palette here is grayer and cloudier than in any of his earlier films--keeps his sense of wonder. The sadness of "Housekeeping" is twisted into its bemusement and reverie, its oddball charm. Through the chillier moments the emotions of the film waft around you like will-o'-the-wisps, or vagrant sunbeams. It's a lovely, strange little film--quietly, tensely lovely--and it says a lot of truthful, moving and scary things about small American towns in the '50s--more than you would normally expect in a movie these days.
The outcasts are female: two little girls, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), left by their mother with relatives. The outlaw is also a woman: their Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti), who takes over the household after a life spent on the road, in hobo camps and on trains.
"Housekeeping," which was adapted from Marilynne Robinson's novel, is a story about people whose rhythms are different from their neighbors'. Lahti's Aunt Sylvie is out of sync with Fingerbone, site of her childhood and her mother's house. And Fingerbone--drenched in a Hardyesque sense of destiny--makes her pay for it. One of the girls, Lucille, gradually becomes alienated from her family. Considering their house a disgrace, she runs away to live with her schoolteacher. Then the local snoops and the sheriff try to take Ruth.
Aunt and niece aren't criminal; they're being penalized for putting up rotten appearances, and for Sylvie's desultory, trampish life style. Trapped together in the decaying old house scarred by floods, full of stacks of yellowing newspapers and a tin-can collection--an eyesore to the overly conventional--Sylvie and Ruth gradually fall under siege and fire.
The film is narrated by Sara Walker as Ruth--and though she's a film newcomer, she gives it the kind of serenely quivering center Linda Manz gave to "Days of Heaven." Her flat vocal tones belie the pain of the story, its weird spurts of joy. Both Walker and Andrea Burchill, as the rigid, priggish, domineering younger sister, are unforced, unself-conscious, refreshingly non-actressy.
Against them, Lahti does a wonderful job, giving one of her sturdily natural, hyper-aware performances. She's an expert at playing tough characters with a wound--cynicism covering up sensitivity. But Sylvie is slightly different from her other roles. There's a fine obliviousness to her behavior, a distracted quality; she seems almost puzzled and eager to please when her shortcomings are pointed out. Forsyth shows that on certain levels, the townspeople are right: Sylvie is crazy. She steals boats, sacks out on park benches at midday, has a high disregard for village mores. Yet Forsyth isn't against her. He's always liked his crazy characters; they're the adventurers who light the sparks.
The film has a stubborn poetry--in the performances, the images. Forsyth's cinematographer here, Michael Coulter--who shot "Gregory's Girl"--isn't the virtuoso Chris Menges was in "Local Hero." But he helps Forsyth give "Housekeeping" a stark, elemental American purity--full of images of fire, flood, lake, forest, the wilderness swallowing up the bare houses of the town, just as the characters are finally swallowed in darkness. "Housekeeping" (MPAA rated: PG), in its quiet way, is a story of spirits who can't be tamed, the dispossessed of a quietly tyrannical time. The film both lulls you and makes you edgy. Finally, it sends all its dreams diving down in darkness. That's part of Forsyth's witchery, and it proves just as potent in America, and Fingerbone, as in Glasgow.
'HOUSEKEEPING' A Columbia Pictures presentation. Producer Robert F. Colesberry. Director Bill Forsyth. Script Forsyth. Camera Michael Coulter. Music Michael Gibbs. Editor Michael Ellis. Production design Adrienne Atkinson. With Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill, Anne Pitoniak, Barbara Reese, Bill Smillie.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).