The easiest way to describe The Keeping Room is as an anti-Gone With the Wind. There are plenty of similarities between the two films – from the Deep South Civil War setting, to shots of eerily beautiful horizons tinted by the flames of war, and even the inclusion of scenes centred on special dresses. However, The Keeping Room strips out all glamour, romance and sass. Instead, it goes for realism, dialling up the dirtiness, despair and all-round complication inherent to real life. It makes for a fascinating movie, but also a very dark one. The Keeping Room is a heavy watch, make no mistake.
It’s also a potent suspense tale. Because another, more commercial, way of reading The Keeping Room is as a home invasion thriller put through a historical filter. With a good dose of feminist Western thrown in the mix. Again, not the stuff of light entertainment.
The Keeping Room explores a pivotal time in US history from a perspective rarely seen onscreen. It asks the question “What was life like for Southern women left behind during the Civil War?” The answer evidently is “Pretty damn awful.”
We meet sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) struggling to survive on their remote farmstead with slave Mad (Muna Otaru). Left to fend for themselves, the women, especially Augusta, have assumed male provider and protector roles. However, every day is a struggle with lethargy in the arid heat, fear that their men won’t return, and a sense of Apocalyptic foreboding. Then along come a pair of Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Ned Dennehy), who have been raping, killing and burning their way across the countryside.
The Keeping Room is crammed full of interesting thematic material. The relationship between the three women is especially meaty, as their power dynamic continually shifts with uncomfortable authenticity. At times, master-slave barriers seem to have completely broken down; at others racism asserts itself with the strength and suddenness of a hard slap. Characters talk repeatedly about the end of the world, and certainly there is a sense through the women’s actions that the status quo of their lives is crumbling – and they know it.
How convincing this all feels really depends on the acting. Fortunately, performances are superb across the board. Indie Cinema queen Marling portrays Augusta as a woman attempting to be stoic and self-sufficient, but whose mask occasionally slips to show the insecurities beneath. Otaru’s Mad is soft-spoken and deferential, but of the three women is best equipped to deal with trauma. Even Steinfeld, who you wouldn’t expect to see in this type of low-key festival fare, and whose character is the most passive, doesn’t flinch from portraying Louise as a brat.
In keeping with the believability of this story, the male characters too are layered. They commit all sorts of brutalities, but it’s clear they’ve been warped by the War. Worthington’s Moses, in particular, is difficult to get a grip on as the apparent “good guy” of the two soldiers. The audience is never quite sure what he’s going to do. Typically, his scenes with Augusta feel like someone holding a rearing snake at bay. In fact, all the interactions with the soldiers are nail-biting.
It’s just that The Keeping Room doesn’t fully satisfy. That may be due to its continual jumping of focus, just as you want a story thread pursued further. Or, more likely, it’s because of frustrating pacing. The film electrifies, then goes dead, before surging back to life. Again, you could argue that this is more realistic, but as a movie structure it prevents viewers from becoming more emotionally invested.
Still, The Keeping Room is worth seeking out. Although not always successful in its transitions between them, it’s an ambitious, interesting mixing of genres. And for the most part, it’s effective as a harrowing, slow-burn thriller with an unusual setting you won’t easily forget.
The Keeping Room is out now on Ster Kinekor DVD.
Last Updated: December 5, 2016