The Keeping Room – Film Review

The Keeping Room

Having made a bold debut in 2009 with the violent British drama Harry Brown director Daniel Barber has gone in a completely different direction in his follow-up. Rather than contemporary Britain The Keeping Room is set in rural America as the American Civil War comes to a close. As the Union Army approaches two sisters and their slave find themselves forced to defend their farm from two brutal soldiers who are taking advantage of women and towns left unprotected as their menfolk have turned to soldiering.

Sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) have a close but tempestuous relationship as Augusta tries to control her younger sister; a young woman not enamoured by hard work and who takes against their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). When Louise is bitten Augusta is forced to leave the farm in search of medicine and in doing so draws the attention of two roving soldiers whose modus operandi is raping and killing. When Augusta returns to the house the two men follow and a battle for survival begins between three women and two trained soldiers. Can the three survive and is their way of life going to be intact if they do get through the night?

The Keeping Room 2

The Keeping Room opens with a scene of harrowing violence and does not pause for a moment of levity from that moment to the film’s close. With a tight running time the simple plot is artfully stretched with a slow menacing pace as the film luxuriates in each scene. Nothing is rushed here and every last drop of tension is extracted where possible. Most scenes feel like a standoff between two characters and it is never obvious who will flinch first and who will come out alive. Maintaining this endless suspense shows skill in Barber’s direction and is nothing short of exhausting for the audience.

Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru all give subtle understated performances as the three women with only each other to rely on. Marling and Otaru in particular play characters who have to outwardly project a level of control and stoicism whilst allowing the audience to see the uncertainty and fear that simmers beneath. Whilst it is always a shame to see another film portraying violence against women The Keeping Room does not glorify or revel in the violence that takes place, even choosing not to show what other films might feast on. Ultimately this is not the story of women being victimised but of a group of women choosing to take a stand, fight back, and protect their home. These are female characters with complex personalities and vulnerabilities but who stand strong in spite of their fear.

In many ways The Keeping Room is an unpleasant watch with its savage but non-gratuitous violence and infinite levels of suspense and tension. If you can stomach these and are in the mood for a thriller with some admirable female characterisation then I advise you look in on this bleak story of survival.

Sound Of My Voice – Film Review

The only qualm I have with Zal Batmanglij (yes, the director’s name is Batman!) and Brit Marling’s film Sound Of My Voice is that its title is missing a ‘the’; the feeling that I am beginning a sentence halfway through makes me uncomfortable. But then, how apt that the film’s title seemingly leaves bits out and makes me feel off since that’s exactly what Sound Of My Voice does as a film.

Brit Marling is Maggie; a prophet to some, a cult leader to others. She is a hidden enigma that professes to be from the year 2054 and is here to, well, she plays her cards pretty close to her chest so we’re not really sure what her plan is. All we know is that the followers that she is amassing include Peter (Christopher Denhem) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) who have infiltrated the group to exploit it as the cult-scam they believe it is. Though, as they grow to be one with the group the pair slowly forget why they joined Maggie’s sect, and the line between investigator and disciple blurs.

Although its protagonist/antagonist (Sound Of My Voice can be delightfully ambiguous) claims to be a time traveller the film remains very grounded; exploring a more human drama that focuses on the dilemmas its characters are going through emotionally than on Austrian bodybuilders with a proclivity for nudity and cool one-liners – though, Marling occasionally does dress down and sing popular songs from the 90s.

Marling and Batmanglij don’t stop at their characters when it comes to Cult Counselling 101 either. Through its quiet, minimalist style and absorbing tone the rituals and activities that Maggie asks of her followers are often just as effective on the audience as they are on Peter and Lorna. When Maggie asks her supporters to close their eyes and imagine being a child you feel yourself joining in as you enter the same state of longing as those acting on Maggie’s whim. This immersive style is fun for the most part until one particular activity crops up which (for cleanliness reasons) involves placing a plastic sheet on the floor. Whilst I am certain that Batmanglij and Marling have created the next step in immersive cinema (5D!) I’m not so certain that cinemas will like the cleanup that may come after the audience’s involuntary participation.*

Sound Of My Voice is a well-chaptered and remarkably powerful film full of emotional and dramatic epiphanies that will have you glued to your seat even when the credits roll. A [maybe] sci-fi, pyschological drama that is filled with crisscrossing ideas about divinity and the power of persuasion that impresses far more than most films so far this year.

Although it leaves you with plenty of questions, Sound Of My Voice gives you the tools for some very thoughtful after-film debates and a burning desire to know where its cast and crew will go next.

Sound Of My Voice will be in UK cinemas on 3rd August 2012.

*If this isn’t exactly clear – I am referencing a scene in which the group decides to purge their negativity by putting a finger down their throat. Cue the Mexican wave of sick in the cinema hall.

Another Earth – Review

Another Earth may be a high concept Sci-Fi in its synopsis, a film exploring the idea of there being a second identical Earth within our solar system, but the execution is on a much more low-key, character driven level. And all the better for it.

Driving home from a party, Rhoda (Brit Marling) hears on the radio that a planet identical to our own has been discovered. Squinting into the sky to have a look for herself Rhoda drives at full speed into another car, killing the mother and child inside and leaving the husband in a coma. After four years in prison she returns to civilization as Earth 2 looms ever closer. While trying to apologise to John (William Mapother) whose family she killed, Rhoda instead begins working for him as a cleaner before growing closer to John over time. Meanwhile contact between the two Earths is established and so it is discovered that everyone on our planet also exists up on the alternative planet. Did the alternative version of Rhoda also kill John’s family?

With its low-budget and a focus on the effects of a Sci-Fi worthy event on the characters, rather than on the event itself, makes Another Earth a perfect fit for my Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction* genre so expertly defined by Never Let Me Go. There is no time wasted exploring why Earth has a twin or on the inevitable first exploratory shuttle trip. We only learn about the fantastical event through coverage on the news and gossip between family members. This human touch makes the film all the more believable, debut director Mike Cahill wisely knows that the less you explain something, the less explanations the audience wants.

Speaking of Cahill, he has a beautiful eye. So much of Another Earth could be framed and put up on the wall, its textured look is pleasing to the eye and not bogged down in too much dialogue and what dialogue there is has a natural sound. The film may not feature as much heavy knitwear as Never Let Me Go but it certainly embodies that aesthetic; rough to the touch but comforting all the same.

Brit Marling plays Rhoda with a real complexity, a woman trying to atone for her sins, yet somehow by doing so is committing a selfless act. One act in particular which could be seen as one of love is in fact the cruellest she could have committed… after killing someone’s family of course. Holding up the other end of the film is William Mapother as the man who has lost everything. When we first see Mapother he is a man with nothing left to live for, a man who has given up, and through his relationship with Rhoda we see him rebuilt as a human being. The transition is sweet to watch, but the looming discovery of Rhoda’s true identity leaves the audience fearing for his sanity.

Barring a few pretentious moments courtesy of a self-harming janitor, Another Earth is a flawless film that is tender, tense and beautiful. The film essentially washes over the audience and all you need do is simply sit back and let it in. Arguably the Sci-Fi element could have been explored a little more but for me the human story at the centre was more than enough to fill a film.

Another Earth is a treat for any fan of independent cinema and has more emotional weight than most tent-pole blockbusters (and plenty of Oscar contenders too).

*Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction = Any film with a science fiction plot which focuses more on character than plot, and has characters wearing thick jumpers rather than jumpsuits.