Title: The Keeping Room
Director: Daniel Barber
Major Players: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington
Out Of Five: 3.5
For a self-confessed – and unashamed – Western fan like Yours Truly, it’s been been a lean few years. But it seems we’re entering a new era of revisionist Westerns. Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman rides into town in late November but, before that, the London Film Festival offers up The Salvation and something of a feminist take on the genre, The Keeping Room.
The end of the Civil War is in sight, but all the men are long gone, so sisters Augusta and Louisa (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) live on what’s left of their family estate, with their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). Together the three women survive on home grown vegetables, living in what is essentially the slave quarters but sleeping in the massive, deserted house. When Augusta ventures further afield in search of medicine for an injured Louisa, she’s spotted by a couple of drunken Union soldiers. They follow her home and the women find themselves and their property under siege.
So the women have taken on the men’s roles, as many women must have done at the time. And this is in a war usually seen from a male point of view. To add another perspective, one of the women is a slave, although this isn’t a slave movie as such: it’s just part of the scenario. Indeed, Mad isn’t an especially subservient slave either, standing her ground when she needs to and even retaliating at times. These aren’t glamorous or decorative women: they work hard and do what they have to do to survive, with resilience and determination. Even younger sister, Louisa, is only allowed a short time to be a stroppy teenager.
As well as being a Western, the story is also a siege drama, despite sounding like it has the making of a horror movie. It’s actually about survival in the face of what would be overwhelming odds. By the end of the film, none of the three are left unscathed by their experiences but they are empowered. They can see the marauding soldiers are on their way – the sky glows red with fire and the air shudders with cannon fire – so, instead of leaving their beloved home to be overrun and desecrated, they set fire to it before they leave. And, by way of protection, dressing themselves as men – although, with her long wisps of hair drizzling from underneath her hat, there’s no way you’d take Brit Marling for a man! The audience doesn’t know what is going to happen to the women as they walk away from the blazing house, but it does know that they have the guts and resourcefulness to survive.
Despite the explosions of bloody violence, The Keeping Room has a beautiful, almost romantic look. The landscape shots are beautiful and there is something ethereal about Augusta when, with her long blonde hair and pale dress, she gallops through the woods on a white horse. When she changes her steed for a darker one, she suddenly looks harder and grittier. Sadly, the interior scenes don’t benefit from the same quality of camera work. Shot mainly in near-natural light and with a hand-held camera, they shake continuously, which is more than a little distracting.
While it was written by a woman – Julia Hart – the film is directed by the Brit Daniel Barber, who shows an understanding and empathy with women that’s almost reminiscent of the great Fred Zinnemann (The Nun’s Story, Julia). It was certainly nowhere to be seen in his previous offering, Harry Brown, and it immediately makes you wonder where he’ll take us next.
The Keeping Room opened at the London Film Festival on Sunday, 12 October. There are two more screenings, on Tuesday, 14 and Wednesday, 15 October. It goes on general release in the UK on 1 January, 2015.