Housekeeping is the first of three films Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth made in the States, and is the most widely respected of the three. Forsyth had made his name in his native Scotland with a string of successful dramedies: Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. He became heavily disenfranchised with Hollywood and filmmaking as a whole after making the ambitious Being Human. The film starred Robin Williams, but the studio forced Forsyth to change the film drastically, and he subsequently disowned it. He has only made one more film since then, Gregory’s Two Girls, which is of course the sequel to Gregory’s Girl.
Bill Forsyth was drawn to the magical woodland of the Pacific Northwest, probably down to it being the area of the United States which is the most similar to his native Scotland in terms of appearance and climate. There has also always been a slight quirkiness to the area, which must have appealed to Forsyth’s tastes. In pure economics, it is also a rich area for filmmaking because it’s much cheaper to shoot there than in California, and in many regards it has much richer natural beauty to use.
Housekeeping is based on the debut novel by Idaho-based author Marilynne Robinson, who is quite an interesting character in her own right. The story is set in the ’50s in the fictional town of Fingerbone, which is based on Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho. It’s never specified exactly where in the Pacific Northwest it’s set, but the film was shot in British Columbia, Canada and there are plenty of references to Seattle and Portland, Oregon throughout the narrative. It’s about the two sisters of a woman who has committed suicide. After their grandmother dies as well, their quirky aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti) moves in to look after them.
There is an overarching sadness that runs through the film from the beginning to its ambiguous ending. It also has a quirkiness that wouldn’t seem out of place in some of the ’70s films of Hal Ashby. It even has a slight surrealness that certainly connects it to David Lynch and Twin Peaks: the scene in which a character casually walks through a flooded house wouldn’t seem out of place in Lynchland.
Housekeeping hasn’t had a home video release since the VHS days in the UK, although there was a DVD-R release in the states back in 2011. However, Powerhouse’s release obviously makes that one redundant with its hour-plus of interviews. Forty minutes of that time is dedicated to Forsyth alone, with Marilynne Robinson and the film’s editor and director of photography also being interviewed. Forsyth also supplies a 36-minute NFT Q&A, which substitutes as an audio commentary. The release is rounded off with an image gallery, trailer and a booklet on the film. Hopefully the new release will give this lost gem a whole new audience it didn’t have when it was sold as “a tidy comedy.”