Matthew Turner reviews feminist western The Keeping Room, starring Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld
Synopsis: Three women (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru) are left alone to defend themselves in a remote house at the end of the American Civil War.
Director: Daniel Barber
Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock
Release date: June 17, 2016
Running time: 95
British director Daniel Barber follows his 2009 debut feature Harry Brown – in which Michael Caine’s shotgun-toting pensioner seeks violent retribution on a vicious gang – with this revisionist western in which Brit Marling’s shotgun-toting homesteader has to violently defend herself against vicious marauders.
Originality-related facetiousness aside, it’s a solid idea – effectively Panic Room reimagined as a western – and the script was previously feted (via the infamous Black List) as one of the best unproduced screenplays of 2012 (the film was made in 2014 but is only now receiving a UK release, despite playing the 2014 London Film Festival).
Set in 1865, rural South Carolina at the tail-end of the Civil War, the film stars Brit Marling as Augusta, a homesteader who lives on a remote farm with her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their loyal slave girl Mad (Muna Otaru), with the menfolk of the family long-since lost to the war.
When Louise gets bitten by a raccoon and falls ill, Augusta rides into town for medicine and inadvertently attracts the attention of Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), two rogue Yankees who have been viciously raping, pillaging and murdering their way across the State. As they follow Augusta back to the farm, the three women are forced to take up arms and defend themselves.
Brit Marling makes an engaging lead as Augusta, conveying the determination and world-weariness of a young woman who has been forced to grow up all too quickly. She also sparks strong chemistry with Muna Otaru – indeed, their subtly evolved relationship, moving from mistress-and-slave to something closer to sisters, due to their shared circumstances – is one of the film’s most interesting elements.
By contrast, Steinfeld is fine, but she’s lumbered with a less than sympathetic, rather one-note character (bit of a moaner, a little bit racist etc), which is slightly frustrating given how wonderful she was in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit.
Barber maintains a strong sense of tension throughout and the violence, when it comes, doesn’t disappoint.
Similarly, the film feels like a much more credible exploration of the female-centred western than the similarly-themed Jane Got a Gun, released earlier this year.
The only problem is that the script doesn’t quite trust its audience to make all the right connections and occasionally resorts to heavy-handed, on-the-nose dialogue with clunky lines like “What if we was men instead of women?”
Fortunately, the film benefits from a strong sense of atmosphere, courtesy of Martin Ruhe’s starkly beautiful cinematography and some impressively authentic-looking location work, coupled with a suitably Southern-flavoured score from British composer Martin Phipps.
This is an engaging and atmospheric western that gains an extra level of interest from adding an intriguing, female-centred angle to a familiar genre. Worth seeing.
The Keeping Room is released in UK cinemas today (17 June).