The Keeping Room
Directed by: Daniel Barber
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Stienfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller
As the American Civil War draws to a close, sisters Augusta and Louise and their maid Mad must defend their home and their lives from a couple of Union deserters.
The Keeping Room is a quite harrowing tale of what life was like for the women left behind to fend for themselves as the menfolk went off to war.
Life is pretty hard for the three women, who barely manage to tend to their farmland and keep food on the table. Augusta and Louise's parents have both died and are reliant to varying degrees on Mad's help. Louise, the younger sibling, hasn't grasped the enormity of war being fought and still feels its Mad's place to be their servant/slave, while Augusta is much more pragmatic and realizes the three of them are in the same boat.
This is ultimately a slow burner, but the film wastes no time at all spelling out what the girls are facing. We follow a young black servant carrying a sheath of wheat on her back, who comes across a horse-drawn wagon. It's a chilling scene which immediately makes you fear for the girls as soon as we meet them in the next scene.
The film then spends an inordinate amount of time just in the girls' company, and I guess this is where a lot of criticism about the film's pace comes from. This is however where we learn the meaning of the film's title and provides an interesting insight into how the women see their future panning out if the war ever comes to an end.
The fact is however, the women have no real idea of what is in store. The Union army is making its way south, having burned Atlanta to the ground and planning on doing the same to any other place they come across. The two deserters, Moses and Henry, are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg (as Moses makes clear, late in the film).
The film starts to shift gears however when Louise is bitten by a raccoon (!) and Augusta must travel into town to get some medicine. In the saloon, she stumbles into an incredibly tense atmosphere, as the bartender and local prostitute are trying to keep Moses and Henry entertained and prevent them from killing/raping anyone. The pair realize that Moses is likely to focus on Augusta and try to help her get out of there as quickly and nonchalantly as possible.
Once the action moves back to the farmhouse things start to move quick and fast with some tense and brutal confrontations, and there is one moment which is almost comical in its bleakness (a bad case of shooting first and asking questions later).
Ultimately, we realize that what we are seeing at the farmhouse is just a small example of what is happening all across the south of the United States. There is a quietly stunning moment as the women watch the night sky turn red, lit by the fires in Atlanta just over the horizon and realize that life as they knew it has definitely come to an end.
The Keeping Room gives a fresh perspective of the life during the Civil War and does an excellent job of bringing the period to life. The three leads are very good (Brit Marling standing out) and Sam Worthington is almost unrecognizable as the odious Moses. The film is more contemplative than action-orientated but when it needs to delve into gunfights and stand-offs, it does so with great aplomb.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)