Housekeeping (Blu-ray Review)19 Jun, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill.
The lamentably underemployed Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of novelist Marilynne Robinson’s PEN/Hemingway award-winner gets a lot of Blu-ray love in this All-Region beauty from the keen-eyed Brits at the relatively new Indicator label, who’ve been doing a bang-up job as of late with seductive Columbia library titles like The Lady from Shanghai, The Big Heat and more. Housekeeping is more hidden away in relatively recent screen history’s nooks and crannies, to be sure, but not that much less worthy, sorry commercial history or not.
The picture was always going to be a DOA box office performer the year after Top Gun, but it also got some help (the wrong kind). After Columbia dumped then studio chairman/CEO David Puttnam barely a year-plus into his tenure and then (as standard industry practice has always had it) all but scrap-heaped the unreleased roster he had in the pipeline. Even my New York press screening at the time got held at the modest old auditorium on Midtown Fifth Avenue — a comfortable-enough venue that gave me some good movie memories but not necessarily the place to sit through a cinematic looker. Viewing this startlingly crisp Blu-ray and then watching vaguely obscure-to-me cinematographer Michael Coulter on the bonus extras, I was inspired to look up his other credits. You mean, Mike then asked, that this Coulter guy also shot Sense and Sensibility? Yes, dunce.
As with Forsyth’s magnificent predecessor Local Hero, the far more solemn Housekeeping takes visual advantage of a modest setting that can turn handsome in certain outdoor manifestations — while also being quietly observational when it comes to the human eccentricities it treats with droll respect. Housekeeping isn’t another kneejerk ’50s basher, but it does illustrate how much of a dead end life could be in rural America for younger folks with active imaginations if their main links to the outside world was experiencing “Sh-Boom” (and neither the Chords nor Crew Cuts hit versions) on a local eatery’s jukebox. The two specific Pacific Northwest sisters we worry about here are orphans Ruth (Sara Walker) and younger Lucille (Andrea Burchill), both relatively unknown actresses who came through for the filmmaker. From all evidence, the adolescents they play come from a decidedly twisted gene pool, though their long deceased grandfather is something of a local legend for having been heavily involved in a train mishap that killed a couple hundred people when the cars ran off a trestle and into the drink on the outskirts of the town.
More germane is the dreadful death of the girls’ mother (men aren’t much of a factor in this story) in a beautifully staged and even unforgettable early scene, which then gets the girls bounced around from family caregiver to caregiver, though always in the same house. Ultimately getting the call is their maternal Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti), who may be no more stable than their well-intentioned mother was but is also more of a live wire and, thus, the town oddball. She hoards newspapers (I once knew one of these folks), saves old cans after removing their labels, sleeps on park benches, steals rowboats for pleasure rides from screaming pursuers, and shrugs off a flood that leaves about a foot of water in their living room. This is an especially interesting movie to see in close conjunction with Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Ghost World (one of my three or four favorite movies of the past quarter-century) because both are about lifelong soul-mates who begin to drift apart. Lucille wants to be settled and with an education, but Ruth gives hint of taking to her aunt’s ways — something that the movie (like the town) worries about. This said, Housekeeping does offer Sylvie at least some respect; her intentions are loving, and she is an undeniable live wire in what no one could call a Rat Pack kind of town. (Unless I missed it, I don’t think there’s a TV in the house, even though the setting must be 1954 or ’55 — though, yes, broadcasting did take a long time to get rolling in parts of the Northwest).
With shooting about to begin for, of all companies, Cannon Films, Diane Keaton pulled out as lead to grab her subsequently popular role in Baby Boom, which I need to see again before compounding my original knock after it proved to be “meh” material for me at the time. Forsyth is too polite in the bonus material to put Keaton down too much, but she really left him in the lurch. As a slightly less obvious casting choice, Lahti materialized as Columbia’s Puttnam came through with just enough funding for a ‘go’; this is probably the performance of Lahti’s career, though what eventually became an Oscar-nominated turn had already stolen so much of Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift that star Goldie Hawn intervened to re-cut the picture in injurious ways. (While I’m on this horse, try lining up Demme’s ’80s filmography with Hawn’s.) There was no way that academy members of the era were ever going to give a movie as muted as Housekeeping the time of day on any level, but Lahti did place second for the New York Film Critics Circle Award as best actress (and ’87 was a good year in the category, starting with Holly Hunter in Broadcast News and Oscar winner Cher in Moonstruck).
Housekeeping came and went fast, but Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert were merely among the most prominent critics who went all-out for it. Forsyth then made Breaking In (John Sayles script, good reviews, no business) and the all-out disaster Being Human with Robin Williams, which sent the filmmaker (71 next month) back to homeland Scotland for good (our loss). He’s prominent, at least, on in the supplemental extras — first in a kind of stammering interview that’s difficult to stay with and a much smoother archival BFI interview where the humor he displays is very much on the level with what we find in his films (don’t forget Gregory’s Girl). Beyond his material, the Coulter interview and several essays, there are reminiscences by editor Michael Ellis and even author Robinson, who seems to be pleased by what Forsyth did with a novel that even he called unfilmable. (She, too, BTW, says the town bluenoses aren’t wrong to worry about the girls’ wellbeing.)
Even so, the movie scores both on the human and visual levels, which is about all you can ask of a filmmaker. It may be dominated by a character who’s batty and maybe even beyond, but from the very opening we sense that this is a movie about to get under our skins in a subliminal kind of way.