There's a story of Ruth's family, about her grandfather and how he grew up on the plains believing the entire world was flat until he saw a photograph of a mountain and his life was transformed. He became obsessed with mountains and drew then incessantly, then when he was old enough he went to visit them. As it turned out, he died amongst the mountains of Idaho in a train tragedy that saw the locomotive and its carriages plunge into the deep lake, taking grandfather with them, but as this passed into Ruth's personal folklore, she was to find her other relatives were no less eccentric...
How Ruthie and her sister Lucille end up in the area with the lake might have been the stuff of further tragedy, but director Bill Forsyth, here adapting Marilynne Robinson's debut novel in his first American film, treats it so matter of factly that we're tempted to react to it as a quirky little joke. What happens is that the girls' single mother (Margot Pindivic) whisks them away from their home life to dump them on their grandmother, then without a word of farewell she drives to a cliff near the lake and sends her car into it, committing suicide. Should be heartwrenching, but is actually bemusing, not least to the daughters.
They have the excuse they are not old enough to understand the implications of what has occured, but we do not, and a theme quickly emerges about adults letting down children. This theme dwindles the further the film draws on, but then resurfaces at the end for the most haunting finale in this director's work. The girls grow into young teenagers (with Ruthie played by Sara Walker and Lucille by Andrea Burchill), having lost their grandmother, and been abandoned by their two great aunts who are only too happy to escape of this out of the way location. Well, they're not entirely left alone, as they have their aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti) to look after them.
Or are they looking after her? Sylvie would in the environment of the nineteen-fifties be called a bohemian, if she were not, as we surmise, a spaced out eccentric who can barely take care of her charges, preferring such idiosyncrasies as spending her days wandering the countryside, never turning on an electric light if she can help it, accidentally (and sometimes not so accidentally) setting things on fire, and so on, a list of quirks that endear her to Ruth, but mortify Lucille. The girls were always close, but their differing reactions to Sylvie drives a wedge between them and soon Lucille has moved out, embraced normal society, and left her sibling lonely and isolated.
But she does have her aunt, and for a while we are intended to be on the side of the nonconformists as the authorities and busybodies in the community take an interest which threatens to split Ruth from her aunt as well, something she resists. There is humour here, as you would expect from a Forsyth work, but the ache of melancholy, for those who will never find their satisfaction and true companionship with the people they encounter, is keenly felt and eventually proves to sow the seeds of outright irresponsibility. The scenery is very well used to underline this mood, with the lake and its ominous presence apparently inviting the unwary into its waters, and the forests only reinforcing the solitude that may not be helpful to Ruthie and Sylvie's state of mind. With no easy answers, and an open quality to how it finishes, Housekeeping is troubling, and while sympathetic exhibits a darker side to Forsyth's usual material that may not appeal to those who loved his comedies. Music by Michael Gibbs.
Scottish writer and director whose gloomily whimsical comedies brought him worldwide recognition. Starting as an industrial filmmaker, he made the no-budget That Sinking Feeling which got him noticed enough to make the classic Gregory's Girl. This led to the similarly well-crafted and heartwarming Local Hero, and the less successful but no less enjoyable Comfort and Joy. Forsyth moved to America for his next films, quirky drama Housekeeping, crime comedy Breaking In, and ambitious but misguided Being Human, then finally returned to Scotland, and his first big success, with ill-received sequel Gregory's Two Girls. He has now retired from directing to concentrate on writing.