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  Keeping Room, The An Uncivil War
Year: 2014
Director: Daniel Barber
Stars: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Luminita Filimon, Charles Jarman, Delia Riciu
Genre: WesternBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: 1865 in South Carolina, and the American Civil War is drawing to a close, but there remain rogue agents of destruction roaming the land. One young woman, a soon to be freed slave, walks down a country road with a pack on her back only to be confronted with a dog sitting in her path, barking at her. Not to be intimidated, she barks back, then notices beyond it that a horse and carriage is stood there, with the driver looking very agitated. She soon sees why when a woman runs out of it, then is shot dead by the Confederate soldier emerging while doing up his flies, though what she doesn't see is the other Northern soldier creeping up behind her, pistol drawn...

These are two examples of the rogues who took the war as an opportunity to act as they pleased, raping and murdering their way through the population they happened upon on their travels, though some might object it was yet another example of the American film industry romanticising the Southern States in Westerns, though that had been the case ever since the genre took off. In this case it was less north versus south that bore the tension here, and more women versus men, for the lead characters were a trio of females who are making the best of the hardships the national conflict has brought about, two sisters and the woman who had been their slave, but was now their equal.

Not because the sisters were suddenly enlightened, but because circumstances had made sure they had to work together on level terms if they wanted to survive in their remote, wooden farmhouse. The elder sister was Augusta, played by US indie queen Brit Marling, and her teenage sibling was Louise, played by Hailee Steinfeld whose breakthrough role had been in the Western remake True Grit, while the slave turned ally was the oddly-named Mad, played by British actress Muna Otaru doing her best Butterfly McQueen impersonation, not that out of place when the whole movie was reminiscent of that part in Gone with the Wind where the ladies are left to fend for themselves and deal with intruders in their house in one of the most violent scenes nineteen-thirties audiences had witnessed.

There was violence in this, certainly, as screenwriter Julia Hart, whose work here had been on the Black List of much praised unproduced screenplays, had based her Civil War tale on the house siege movies Night of the Living Dead and Straw Dogs, a design classic that had served many productions well, but with this she wanted to bring out not a theme of men saving women from evildoers, but women saving themselves. To do so they had to get over their inherent fears and find some inner strength, all very well but under Daniel Barber's direction quite often The Keeping Room could have been classified under the category of the movement of slow cinema, which was not averse to bringing examples to the Western genre, heck there was even a film called Slow West that was contemporary with this.

The female angle was the hook here, and the emphasis was on the wartime experience of long stretches of boredom followed by quick bursts of absolute terror, a tricky mix to get right in a film and still be entertaining. You could argue that the moviemakers here did not quite achieve enough of the right mood of oppression to render this compelling, and certainly the sound design worked against the overall effect, with sparse conversations conducted at too quiet a volume in broad Southern accents mixed with window-rattling gunfire that sounded like the space shuttle taking off. If this was disconcerting, maybe that was the purpose, but it did not make for an easy watch, and the lead trio were curiously only sympathetic because they were under terrible threat from the rogues, and not because they had forged a winning bond with one another overall. Not until the latter stages, that was, when gender solidarity won the day, overcoming class and race with, well, with violence basically, but this was a Civil War drama and that's what you would anticipate. More interesting to muse over its meaning than as a thrilling yarn. Music by Mearl.

[Lionsgate's DVD has a commentary with Marling and Hart and a featurette as extras.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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