I am a huge Brit Marling fan and like Hailee Steinfeld quite a bit as well, but I found myself having a hard time believing both of them as women from 1865. Part of it is their look, part of it was the dialogue sounding stilted at times, but overall I had a hard time buying into the world of The Keeping Room. Daniel Barber’s direction just can’t make writer Julia Hart’s premise leap off the page. Set in the American South as the Union army is burning everything in its way, three women, two sisters and their slave, are left to their own devices as the men in their lives fight in the Civil War; maybe never to return.
Just a film about these women surviving on their own could have been a really interesting picture, but the script puts a thriller element on top of that with the threat of a pair of Union soldiers reeking havoc on the vulnerable southern folks ahead of the army’s march. Ravaging the women they encounter, the soldiers cross paths with the older sister of the trio, Augusta, which puts everyone on a path to a confrontation at the women’s estate.
Both of these premises are good one their own, but it doesn’t all come together. I feel like we could have gotten a bit more about the lives and dynamics of these women’s daily lives and a sense of the longing and strength they have built in the absence of their men. The soldiers are appropriately set up, and their scenes tend to be the film’s best moments, but a dynamic the film tries to push between the Augusta and one of the soldiers, Moses, never gelled for me. All of the moments these two get together one on one just play really weird and with no motivation as to why they are acting the way they are. Sex, and Augusta’s desire to have it, is seeded into the film, but I didn’t feel the connection the filmmakers were looking for between these two.
The experience of the sisters slave, Mad, is also quite the thematic roller coaster. The relationship she has with the two sisters early on is all over the place, Augusta is nice to her slave, but doesn’t hesitate to slap her, while the younger sister, Louise, is downright evil to her for one scene. Then the next scene everything is ok among everyone. A couple of moments work really well though, a confrontation between Mad and Augusta plays out appropriately, bringing everyone to the same level. Also, a later monologue from Mad about her “monster” really might be the scene and acting performance of the movie. Muna Otaru plays Mad rather effectively when given her moments, but she is also betrayed by her script from time to time. The half-baked romantic sub-plot with Mad and her man is paid such little service and the finality brought to it just felt completely unearned, along with Mad’s reaction to it.
As you can probably tell, I am a bit torn on The Keeping Room. The scenes that play for tension really work well. The set pieces are the best thing the filmmaking team bring to the table, but often when the film takes a moment to quiet down it felt like it was almost always pushing me out of the reality of the picture. I was constantly knocked out of the film’s world. Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller feel authentic as the Union soldiers causing all this trouble, but anytime it isn’t just the two of them something felt off.
If you like the Civil War era on film, The Keeping Room is a solid attempt at trying something different on a much smaller scale. There is a great movie buried somewhere in this premise, but I don’t know why it didn’t connect on that level. Maybe it needed a bit more of a budget, maybe it was the casting, but there are thrills to be had in this film. The Keeping Room might not work every step of the way, but it works well enough if you are intrigued to see it.