The Keeping Room (4 stars)

Cemetery of Splendour

Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld protect their homestead in a wonderful feminist western

During the dying days of the American Civil War, sisters Augusta and Louise (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their African-American slave Mad (Muna Otaru) are forced to defend their isolated South Carolina homestead from two violent soldiers, Moses and Caleb (Sam Worthington and Ned Dennehy), who have separated from the approaching Union Army.

Debut screenwriter Julia Hart expertly blends and subverts elements of the western, home invasion horror and post-apocalyptic drama to weave a powerful feminist narrative which celebrates the strength and tenacity of its female protagonists. Life is undoubtedly hard without the menfolk – who have all been lost to war – but these women are surviving, drawing on each other for comfort and support. The bond between them is intense, as is their need to protect both their home and themselves.

To do so will push them to their limits – as, while Moses and Caleb may have biblical names, the men’s intentions are anything but chaste. Hart has been careful, however, not to paint them as marauding villains but desperate men, who no longer know how to interact without violence. In lesser hands, the story could have tipped into exploitation, but both Hart and sensitive sophomore director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) maintain a firm hand throughout even the most harrowing moments. Evocative cinematography from Martin Ruhe – which ranges from the easy intimacy of the girls chatting in their kitchen to a final aerial shot of Union soldiers swarming the landscape, resembling nothing so much as a zombie horde – effectively underscores the story’s dramatic beats.

Fundamentally, The Keeping Room is not a story of victims, but of heroes. Here, sisterhood, cunning and visceral determination are traits to be lauded, not quashed, and difficult issues like racism and the ravages of war are themes to be tackled head on. And, despite its period setting, it also has an entirely modern sensibility; this is not a reminiscence of a womanhood constrained by history or geography, but a film that speaks to the universal realities of the female experience.

Selected release from Fri 17 Jun.

The Keeping Room

  • 4 stars
  • 2016
  • US
  • 1h 35min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Daniel Barber
  • Written by: Julia Hart
  • Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Ned Dennehy
  • UK release: 17 June 2016

Towards the end of the American Civil War, sisters Augusta (Marling) and Louise (Steinfeld) and their African-American slave Mad (Otaru) are forced to defend their homestead from two violent Union soldiers (Worthington and Dennehy). Writer Hart celebrates sisterhood, cunning and visceral determination and Barber ensures…