Brit Marling gets her gun and gives Sam Worthington hell in ‘The Keeping Room’
Thelma Adams, Film Editor, September 25, 2015
Since I am committed to raising the profile of female-driven narratives, here’s a shout-out for the peculiarly subdued, fantastically acted action film that is Daniel Barber’s Civil War drama The Keeping Room with a script by Julia Hart.
Brit Marling (I Origins, Arbitrage) stars as Augusta, a take-charge Southern beauty born to be a debutante, now toting a rifle in the isolated fields around her family’s Carolina home. Hunting game, she has become the “provider” while the men-folk are fighting the War Between the States. August is now charged with protecting the family assets, including high-strung younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and slave woman Mad (Muna Otaru).
This common narrative of women during the Civil War has rarely been explored on film in the context of the South: the steely women who held down the home front as their men were fighting, then losing the war. It is a tale with a million variations. (Gone with the Wind is arguably one of them, but there’s a major tonal difference here.)
Maybe we should have more of these stories, whether the women are Southern or Northern, and a few less male coming-of-age comedies.
The starving trio exists in the Terrence Malick twilight, forced to confront an alliance across color lines when two renegade Union Soldiers besiege the isolated frame house. The fact that one of these Yankee villains in faded blue is played by the hunky Sam Worthington (Avatar) injects a complex chemistry into the mix of man versus woman, Yankee versus Rebel, Black versus White. His biblically named Moses lays siege to the house alongside Henry (RADA-trained Kyle Soller), laying on the sexual and physical threat in a teasing way that is all the more frightening for its unwanted familiarity. The pair of stragglers suggests the imminent arrival of the triumphant Union Army – and the women are the spoils of war.
What makes The Keeping Room stand out is that this is a story of the Civil War with an unabashed Confederate and female perspective, and one that also gives the African American actress Otaru an actual character with an arc. Based on a story the screenwriter unearthed while visiting Southern friends, we come to understand that Confederate or Union, the plight of women in wartime is often a losing battle. And, yet, like all wars (see the films of Steven Spielberg), that danger sometimes yields the individual’s finest, bravest moments. That clearly applies to Augusta.
The Keeping Room is feminist largely by empowering women behind the screen and in front to create and carry the story arc. It showcases the promising talent of screenwriter Hart (slated to direct her next script with Lily Rabe). And it reinforces the bounty of adventurous, talented actresses in search of challenging roles, including Marling, Steinfield and Otaru.
The home invasion thriller occasionally clashes with the more restrained period damsels drama: it might have helped if the film could be a bit more breathless, a little less breathy. And, yet, The Keeping Room remains fresh, a fascinating historical tale unfolding on fertile ground.