It’s a remarkable story that presents the facts with no indication of a position being taken. In doing so, Forsyth allows Robinson’s work to forge its own path through our soul.
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth
Based on the novel by Marilynne Robinson
Starring Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill
So there are two young girls, Ruthie and Lucille, who don’t know enough to be sad when their mother brings them to live with their grandmother in the fictional Fingerbone, Idaho and promptly drives her car off of a cliff. Her mother and the girls’ grandmother Sylvia dutifully takes care of the girls for the rest of her life, dying when they’re in their mid to late teens. By then after a short interim, the girls (Walker and Burchill) are left in the care of their wistfully transient aunt Sylvie.
Sylvie (Lahti) has a unique way of wandering through life. She is supposedly married, though she has no children, no sign of her husband, and is elusive on information about that. There are a lot of mysteries in the family, to the point that mostly what the girls hear of or know are stories about Sylvie’s father, who was born on the plains and fell so in love with mountains he travelled until he could live among them.
Life with Sylvie is even stranger and more unbalanced than the girls had experienced in their tough life prior, Ruth takes to the indifferent but loving style, and her sister Lucille becomes disenchanted, eventually bolting the family unit for something with more structure.
The great thing about this story is the way it presents the family as a divergence between two types of people. It’s obvious that grandpa was a wanderer who married a stable woman. They had two daughters and Sylvie’s had no problem following her father’s footsteps while her sister Helen struggled. Now Helen’s daughters feel the opposite pull in their own lives.
There is more to it than this, of course, but Forsyth wiseley avoids being pulled into the weeds of detail. The focus on the here and now works well enough to pain the entire picture, while giving the viewer a good enough glimpse of the altogether looming shadows.
Lahti is the perfect driver for this vehicle. Her face projects innocence and loss at once. He eyes tell the truth behind the smile. Her reactions to events that others would find easily tragic gives even the viewer a sense of unease. Where is she leading these two, poor girls? Is it enough to be happy in the moment, or will it lead to something unsafe in the seemingly bottomless lake that took their grandfather and mother?
The trip is worth the bumps and bruises. Each of the sisters are presented with no hint of bias to their chosen position in life. While it’s easy to appreciate why someone might just want to wander out of their miserable condition of keeping a house, it’s no sin to want to be preserved in its structure. We experience the discomfort of not knowing what is going to happen next, but never once does it seem anyone’s actions are done out of a lack of love. This even includes the nosey neighbors.
Lahti is remarkable. When it’s discovered that she gained this role when Diane Keaton dropped out, it’s astonishing to think of how the film might have changed without her shiny, secret heart shown through those sadly beautiful eyes. She has a firm grasp on everything that would make the steady feel nervous. She is a woman who knows enough to not burden her two nieces with her view of what happened or why.
It’s a remarkable story that presents the facts with no indication of a position being taken. In doing so, Forsyth allows Robinson’s work to forge its own path through our soul. We can take it as we would take anything else in life. Our reaction is guided by our sensibilities, to the extent that they were formed by the events in our own lives. It’s a remarkably wise and affecting work of art, precisely because it doesn’t try to guide us to the author’s vision of correct living. This is precisely because through life outside of Eden, there may not be a right answer.
(***** out of *****)
From Ebert’s original **** review:
“In a land where the people are narrow and suspicious, where do they draw the line between madness and sweetness? Between those who are unable to conform to society’s norm and those who simply choose not to, because their dreamy private world is more alluring?”