Down in the Flood – Housekeeping (1987)

For Notebook at MUBI, I wrote about Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. The full article text is reproduced below.

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On first viewing Bill Forsyth’s film Housekeeping (1987) I was somewhat unimpressed by its low-key television-movie feel; a small town family drama lacking cinematic spectacle, featuring relatively unknown actors. It seemed thrifty, in keeping with the unfussiness of the story’s central character, Sylvie. By contrast, Marilynne Robinson’s novel, on which the film is based, describes moments of fantastical prophecy, strengthened by the author’s knowledge of Scripture, in images of dead souls recovered from a deep lake resonant of the Bible’s account of the Flood and Apocalypse. Forsyth’s better-known Local Hero (1983), a comedy set in a remote Scottish village, gives viewers a meteor shower, the Northern Lights and Burt Lancaster descending from the sky, so the director’s use of Robinson’s text could certainly have reached for very different effects.

Though the film retains the perspective of the book’s youthful narrator, Ruth, inclined to the imaginings of childhood, Forsyth makes no attempt to visualise these poetic evocations, and divests the township of Fingerbone of any overt religious associations, preferring to let the natural landscape present a majesty of its own, and working on the delicate personal bonds between the three protagonists. On closer inspection, though, Housekeeping belies an eloquent audiovisual arrangement, submerging profound aspects of the original material in an unpretentious style, leaving them to rise to the surface of their own accord.

Sylvie, a young itinerant woman, returns to her hometown of Fingerbone to become the primary carer of her two nieces, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), following the suicide of their mother. Like Robinson’s novel, and contrary to the melodramatics of the average ‘real life issues’ soap opera, Forsyth’s film makes no explicit reference to the mental health of Sylvie. But the history of spectacular death in the family, the symbolism of the lake which claimed the bodies of both Sylvie’s father and her sister—the former in the train accident that has become the town’s most famous episode—and the increasingly manifest unconventionality of Sylvie’s behaviour (with actress Christine Lahti skillfully revealing layer beneath layer of her character, from untroubled eccentricity to painful self-awareness and misgivings about her relationships) suggest a shadowy realm populated by ghosts of the past that threatens to encompass the young girls. Lucille senses it, expressing her discomfort primarily in relation to the embarrassment it brings to her as a typical high schooler, and the townsfolk sense it.

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Water and flooding are here more simply but subtly associated with the irruption of different currents—of emotion; of memories of events, images and sounds—that risk pulling the characters into their undertow. While Ruth remarks that the family have always been comforted by the fact that their home was built on a hill and so less liable to floodwaters, they are nevertheless inextricably tied to the lake and continually drawn to it. Ruth and Sylvie spend days playing truant, idling down by the water, near the railroad bridge off which their grandfather’s train slipped “like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

Sylvie is eager to show Ruth a valley unknown to many among the mountainous surroundings, and accessible only by boat, which sees the pair staying out all night on the lake in a leaking vessel. This striking image is an intensification of a more humorous early scene when the family home is first flooded by several inches of water. Ruth’s relative acceptance of these commonly disruptive circumstances and her growing fascination with her aunt—whom we come to see, with both empathy and concern, as a reflection of her and her own mother—is transformed into the image of the two women on the perilous waters, under the railway tracks in the dead of night.

It is in this scene, too, that the evocative use of sound is made more apparent, and creates an ambiguity that is not suggested in Robinson’s novel. When Sylvie pulls herself up, hugging the rickety skeleton of the railway bridge, we loudly hear the cross-country locomotive shuttling through Fingerbone. But we don’t see it. The sound of clanking metal on the bridge and the lapping currents against the boat are, again, a kind of amplification of the earlier scene, where the gentle bumping of metal tins and other household items bobbing in the flood water is heard as Lucille tries to sweep them into a closet to no avail.

The passing train is also suggested by the use of intermittent light, to simulate the illuminated carriage windows at night, but perhaps owing to nothing more than budget limitations and/or logistics, this key symbol of the town’s identity and the family’s history is at this moment invisible. It is now that we might question whether Ruth and Sylvie have seen a train at all, or rather if we are aware finally of a folie á deux—or less dramatically, a shared poetic sense—that has been deepening throughout the film. And then one recalls that in the novel, too, Ruth tells us that nobody in Fingerbone actually saw the famous crash.

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Robinson’s prose, too, emphasises the auditory, with descriptions of the sloshes of water, and the distant sound of the ice on the lake breaking in thunderous cracks. The latter phenomenon is again presented in the film only as something beyond the screen, beyond the window of the girls’ bedroom. Lucille worries that the sound is like that of a train crashing off the bridge. Ruth assures her that it is only the ice. By now, Ruth is growing comfortable with her unusual lifestyle, living with her aunt, in a house of compulsively stacked newspapers and food cans, growing used to Sylvie’s odd habits.

The sound of ice breaking is, then, both comforting and unsettling. Getting to know their wayward aunt, uncovering some of the mysteries of their past, learning more about themselves and the women they are starting to become places new stresses on the girls’ precarious young lives. The way in which the past haunts the present and the consequent difficulties of intimacy between people are ideas that Robinson would return to in her following three novels, GileadHome and Lila, all set in the town of Gilead. In these stories, everyday gestures, words and apparently unremarkable objects are again invested with a miraculous quality. In doing this, Robinson avoids the prophetic visions of her first novel, and brings the books closer in feel to Forsyth’s subtle, moving adaptation—suggesting that Forsyth had indeed grasped from the start the underlying poetic qualities that make Robinson’s prose so affecting.

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