Housekeeping and Bill Forsyth in Person
April 15, 2010
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street
He hasn't made a movie in over a decade, but Bill Forsyth remains the most gracious filmmaker around today. In a film world that's on bombastic overload due to wall-to-wall digital effects and overbearing 3-D, the Scottish director has always specialized in making films with the barest of plots that are populated with assiduously oddish characters who are no less real for all that. His warm, gentle, acute comedies of manners are an oasis for discerning film fans.
Novel and film follow our narrator Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille. They go to the village of Fingerbone, Washington, to live with their grandmother when their mother commits suicide. Following their grandmother's death, two dowdy old aunts from Spokane, Lily and Nona, arrive to look after them until, finally, their mother's sister Sylvie shows up to take care of them. Robinson's unadorned plot teemed with the small delicacies of real life that were of obvious interest to Forsyth; he doesn't, however, simply transfer the book to film (although Ruth's narration comes right from the novel)—he has directed even more casually than Robinson writes, thereby registering the human aspects more strongly.
Forsyth's major strength has always been his ability to present the abnormal as normal and, conversely, the everyday as absurd. Here, there are many throwaway scenes, like the girls' mother's suicide, that are filmed so offhandedly that we laugh in spite of ourselves. Aunts Lily and Nona are shown as the foolish old spinsters they are in spite of their best efforts as guardians. And our protagonists, withdrawn Ruth and outgoing Sylvie (Lucille tires of Sylvie's offbeat housekeeping and moves in with a female teacher), are allowed to develop an unbreakable bond, but in the most restrained way imaginable.
Forsyth never becomes ornate or showy with his camera. The few visual effects he allows himself make their points by complementing, not overwhelming, the characters. A lovely late-night boating excursion is lit naturally, as Sylvie and Ruth are shown as quite at ease apart from, and as part of, the world. Similarly, the haunting final shot of train tracks that seem to go on forever into the night is a perfect metaphor for what lies ahead for our two soul sisters, as well as an adept commentary on their kinship whose implications ultimate break the heart.
Andrea Burchill (Lucille) and especially Sara Walker (Ruth) are adept at letting us share in their opposing responses to Sylvie; Michael Gibbs' music is used sparingly and always meaningfully. To pay Forsyth the highest compliment, Housekeeping could only have been made by one director. Now, here's hoping that this beautiful new print of this remarkably unclassifiable classic leads to a DVD and Blu-ray release of one of the best films of the last 25 years.
originally posted on timessquare.com