Classic Movie 2019

Classic Movie Of The Week: Housekeeping (1987)

Starring: Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill

Director: Bill Forsyth

Ruth and Lucille are two sisters who are sent to live with relatives after their mother commits suicide. Initially left with their grandmother, after she dies their eccentric Aunt Sylvie takes them in, raising them in their ancestral home. But Aunt Sylvie’s unusual nature and attitude to life eventually set the two sisters at odds. Lucille wants a normal life, education and acceptance while Ruth wants the freedom that Sylvie offers.

Adapted from a Pullitzer Prize nominated novel, the housekeeping of the title refers to living in a house, which appears to be a bit of a novel concept to Sylvie. She see life in her own way, happy to sleep on a park bench or switch jobs or towns at the drop of a hat. She’s hardly what you’d call responsible parent material, especially by the standards of the time. Which is what makes this film both special and a little odd. I really liked Sylvie and I can see through Ruth’s eyes how she’s a bohemian, free spirit type who would come into her own in the 60’s. But unlike free spirits in a lot of films, the establishment isn’t out to get her and her ideas about how to approach life are not always what’s best for the girls. She seems barely able to feed and cloth them, not interested in their education and sometimes seems to not get that they need safety and shelter. She is, however, often very funny with her unusual responses to situations.

There are no good guys and bad guys in this film and no neat endings. It’s a story that makes you think and it’s full of innocence, leaving you to wonder what happened to them all in the end or perhaps better to imagine your own ending. I felt sad that the sisters grew apart, and yet it makes perfect sense that Ruth wanted a sense of home and belonging which she found in Sylvie. And also that Lucille would want structure, regular meals, clothes, schooling and belonging in a community.

So, it’s ambiguous. It maybe tells a story of a life as opposed to having a message about the best way to live your life. I felt very sad for the two girls being abandoned by their mother and their family, and even in a way by Sylvie’s lack of parenting skills and stability.

The performances are all really strong, especially from Lahti who plays Sylvie with just the right amount of naivety and intelligence. I loved the location of the house, with it’s beautiful forest surrounding it, it’s scenes at the train tracks or deep in the forest, as though the wilderness could take back the house at any time. The house itself feels like it contains a lot of history and family stories, and I loved the vintage kitchen. Scenes where the three live in the house while it’s flooded make for some great scenes.

On the whole, it’s a film that a lot of people have forgotten about and I can see why. It’s ambiguity makes it wonderful and the eccentricity adds a layer of interest, and yet by not resolving anything and not having anything to really sink your teeth into, it’s not moving or dramatic is the conventional way. It’s subtle, you might leave the cinema thinking that you liked these people but you’re not sure what the point of it all was. You also might worry about what becomes of Ruth. I know I felt at the end like she’s very at risk with Sylvie. Either way, it is a beautiful film and it does make you think.

See It If: you like unusual dramas. It’s a really beautiful film with great landscapes and sets as well as excellent performances, but on the whole it’s a bit soft on themes and a solid ending which might annoy some.

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