In a similar vein to the recent feminist western Jane Got a Gun, now comes the release of Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room, a somewhat less commercial (and controversial) affair, and yet certainly the more accomplished feature of the two.
Set during the American Civil War, we enter into the life – albeit somewhat briefly – of sisters Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and Augusta (Brit Marling), who are put in a position, alongside their slave, Mad (Muna Otaru), whereby they have to protect their home from evil outsiders while the men are out in combat. The precarious, menacing set of events occur due to the arrival of intruders Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), who follow Augusta home from a local saloon, with plans of attacking the three women and taking their property.
It’s refreshing to watch a film set against the backdrop of war, and yet peer in through the perspective of female protagonists; for the pain and anguish they feel during such a tumultuous time is equally as compelling to a viewer as it can be for the men on the battlefield – just as we saw in Testament of Youth. Though this is undoubtedly their story, Barber cleverly introduces the viewer to the antagonists of the piece first, as we meet Moses and Henry in the opening scene as they brutally murder three innocent people. Not only does this set the tone for what transpires to be an unrelenting, suspenseful affair, but it lets us know just what Augusta, Louise, and Mad are up against. To have such reprehensible, callous villains with absolutely nothing to lose makes for the scariest of antagonist too, capable of just about anything and without any shades of guilt nor remorse.
There is a distinct lack of context to this narrative, which at times is beneficial, for it strips this film down to its bare bones, which is effectively a traditional home invasion picture, thriving off that endearing sense of simplicity. However without context comes a lack of emotional investment, and makes for a disengaging experience at times, which proves to be detrimental to our enjoyment, particularly when watching a film that relies so heavily on the support for the leads and their survival.