Such is the dearth of significant roles for women that a film containing three ends up depressingly drawing more attention for that than anything else. In The Keeping Room, it’s easy to see why though. The leading trio do all they can to capitalise on an intriguing premise but are let down badly by a faltering screenplay that overdoses on painfully dramatic gestures.
The dying days of the American Civil War certainly provide fertile territory. British director Daniel Barber’s second feature takes place in the south as the Union army marches ever closer to that final victory. The men have gone off to wipe each other out leaving the women to fend for themselves. This is exactly what sisters’ Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) have been doing alongside their African-American slave Mad (Muna Otaru). When Union scouts Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) turn up seeking more than just hospitality, they are forced to fight off the intruders.
If the film were to hinge only on the central performances it would be a roaring success. The three women are convincingly drawn and powerfully performed. There’s a natural rapport between Marling, Steinfeld and Otaru as they overcome their own prejudices to work together against a greater enemy. Marling brings her usual grit to a role that requires trembling courage, while Steinfeld mixes empathy with a startling wake-up call in the way she treats Mad. It’s Otaru who shines brightest as the one member of the household who not only finds her place but finally manages to prove she’s worth one. Alongside them, Worthington and Soller simmer with enough menace to justify the fear they provoke without ever threatening to take centre stage.
While Barber does a good job at creating a mood that crackles with danger, there is certainly no risk of the screenplay eclipsing the performances. A thin plot exists in just enough detail to bring the interlopers onto the farm. Aside from the siege sequence as they hole up in the house, it’s hardly compelling stuff. Even worse is the dialogue. Every conversation has to end on a dramatic line; every scene has to conclude with a theatrical gesture. Henry is left pointing his finger in the air firing an imaginary gun as Augusta rides off, while portentous talk sweeps over more than one death. At times it reaches cringe-worthy level.
It’s a shame The Keeping Room fails to provide a better base. Tackling a forgotten historical period with three strong characters, Barber’s film is blessed with an abundance of potential. That it doesn’t deliver is deeply frustrating. It could, and should have been so much more.