This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
In the latter days of the American Civil War, a young woman, her teenage sister and their former slave have to fend off their home from a couple of rogue Northern soldiers.
What we thought
Following in the footsteps of Jane Got a Gun, the Keeping Room is another “Feminist Western” that has almost exactly the same strengths and weaknesses of that troubled Natalie Portman vehicle.
The very idea of telling a western from a female point of view is a great one, as it should, in theory at least, breathe some new life into a genre that seemed for a while there to have run out of things to say. This is a story of the civil war told by those that were left behind; traditionally domicile women trying to fend for themselves while their “protectors” and breadwinners are away, perhaps never to return. We find a country bled dry by the war and women and old men having to rely on their own efforts for even the most humble of meals. And, perhaps most intriguingly, we see the daughters of a Southern family suddenly finding themselves on equal footing with their (near-ex) slave; effectively fulfilling the promises of the war almost by accident.
It's intriguing stuff, brought to life by a trio of excellent actresses - with relative newcomer Muna Otaru easily holding her own against more established but similarly young and talented actresses, Brit Marling and, marking her return to the genre that made her famous, Hailee Steinfeld. It's also nicely shot, handsomely mounted and the moments of horror and tragedy do manage to strike a genuinely powerful and moving note when they inevitably but very slowly arrive.
And yet, for all that there is to admire about the film, it's still rather difficult to like. It's extremely slow, for a start, which would be less of a problem if there was more in the way of either plot development or layered characterization but there's a sense that director Daniel Barber and writer Julia Hart are so enamored with the relative uniqueness of their vision that they allowed the basics of storytelling to fall away in the process. That it's not fun or particularly entertaining isn't really a problem, considering the subject matter of the film, but it really ought to be a lot less boring than it is.
Things do undeniably pick up in the later parts of the film as our heroines go head to head with highly trained and deadly soldiers but for all that some of the more harrowing scenes do pack a serious punch, there's the unavoidable sense that they would work better and feel less out of place if the rest of the film had just a bit more heart and, frankly, humour to go along with its ponderous and portentous stateliness.
As it is, it's a film that is easy to admire and even think about but by refusing to let down its guard and occasionally have at least a little fun with its storytelling, it's not one that's likely to stay with you beyond a few scenes – which also means that it never really justifies how heavy and heavy handed it is. The Keeping Room could have been entertaining or it could have been a powerful piece of art – though ideally it would be both – but for all of its good intentions, it's really a problem that it's neither.