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 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.