The Keeping Room - LFF Review
The American Civil War in popular history is remembered as one of the "Good Wars". The North fighting for emancipation and freedom, the South for slaves, cotton and molasses. And to a greater and lesser degree, that was the case, the big picture. The problem with any war is in the detail, there are no good wars. In the Civil War, the war in the East, the conflict between Grant and Lee is the one that captures most of the attention. In the West, William Tecumseh Sherman was ordered by Grant, following the capture and burning of Atlanta (see Gone With The Wind for further details), to march East and put pressure on Lee, who was bottled up in Petersburg. Sherman was ordered to live off the land and respect the populace. Sherman respected the first part of that order. The March to the Sea is one of the great misunderstood events of the Civil War. It was, to put it bluntly, a chevauchée. This was a medieval tactic used spectacular effect by the English in the Hundred Years War. It is designed to create maximum economic and physiological damage on the enemy and draw them into battle. Sherman used it to the same effect as Edward III and The Black Prince, he brought a country to its knees. The Keeping Room opens with us meeting the face of the Union advance in Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller. The opening scene is sudden, brutal and without remorse. You're left knowing exactly where these two men stand. The film then moves to the Carolinas farm where we see two sisters and their slave literally trying to scrape a living from the earth. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld are the sisters and, in an exceptional performance, Muna Otaru as Mad. The women are bravely keeping the home fire flickering, unaware the storm brewing over the horizon. The catalyst is a raccoon bite that spurs the film into life and the confrontation between Marling's Augusta and Worthington's soldier.
It needs to be said right about now that Sam Worthington has annoyed me for years. The man has talent, glimpses of which shine through in the mindless action pap in which he tends to be cast. In The Keeping Room, opposite an equally impressive Marling, he almost makes me willing to forgive Avatar. Almost. Working from Julia Hart's script (the script was on The Black List in 2012), the pacing of the film is reminiscent to director Daniel Barber's debut Harry Brown. This means initially things will happen quickly, before the film lulls you back down with a change of pace, before letting all hell lose. This seems to a bone of contention in other reviews (THR and Variety for example, other views, as always, are available), but as a plain old cinema goer, walking in cold (albeit a big fan of Harry Brown) I found the pacing effective. The flow of the film leading to the resultant siege of the farmhouse and the women deciding to fight for what is theirs, is logical and jarring, taking you out of any comfort zone you have fallen into. I'm trying to dance around the plot because built around the scenes of domesticity, are scenes of pure menace. Worthington's thousand yard, unblinking stare, coupled with the overt violence of Soller, bring a different kind of steel to the women's iron. This leads to the culmination of the journey which does take an unexpected turn or two. Augusta's innocence is balanced with a deep determination to protect what is hers, while Mad has seen the world for what it is and tries, in her own way, to protect her girls. But it is Steinfeld that interestingly is playing against our expected type. We've seen her before as the young woman with Grit, but here she plays the younger daughter of faded privilege and the arrogance of youth that, clinging to what she knew, does what all younger siblings do, annoy the hell out of her older sister.
The film carries potent message on the effects of war on all involved, whether they are combatant or bystander. It also uses its Southern focal point to maximum effect. Given that the people we are rooting for are on what most would view as the wrong side, we get to experience a reality that we seldom see, the gloss and melodrama of Gone With The Wind aside. The small cast are all outstanding. Ned Dennehy and Amy Nuttall are as solid as ever, and a brief appearance of Soller's Monsters: Dark Continent co-star Nicholas Pinnock (my M:DC review is here) is purposeful as the herald of the greater danger coming, even if we mostly see him shadow.
Overall, I can say that so far, this is my film of the year. Walking into it cold, I was truly affected. Whereas I can understand some of the criticisms of the other reviews, I found Marling captivating and Muna Otaru incredible. Otaru's role, while seemingly secondary, is used to devastating effect. I cannot recommend The Keeping Room enough, I will see it again on release proper and will be adding it to the Blu Ray collection as soon as it hits the shelves, to sit proudly next to Harry Brown. I had the chance to speek to Kyle Soller and Nicolas Pinnock after the screening and geeked out slightly as they had been in my two favourite, if remarkably different, films of the festival this year. M:DC and The Keeping Room both ask some powerful questions about the world we face, whether it be interventionism or the affect on those that intervention has. They both seem pleased as punch with their work on both films and, much like I said about M:DC, I hope The Keeping Room finds an audience and the awards it, Muna Otaru especially, deserves.