I’ll admit it: this native Northern gal had to look up the definition of a “keeping room” while doing this review. According to Central Virginia Home’s web page, a keeping room refers to a room just off the kitchen where families and servants gathered to do chores and have meals, as it was often the warmest and coziest room in the house. More on that in a minute…
This film opens on a shocking and murderous note, which conveys the overall feeling in the South at the time: the Civil War is in its final days, and there is no reason or civility left for these bleak and war weary humans. Two Union soldiers are traveling on a dusty road in a horse drawn carriage. One soldier is drunk and raping a woman in the carriage; as she tries to run away he shoots her in the back. They meet a slave coming up the dusty trail and without a word they shoot her as well, point blank. They kill their driver, set fire to the carriage, and send it and the frightened horse careening across a field. It is a horrifying and necessary scene. We are introduced to the utter devastation and hopelessness at the end of the War in the South. Hopelessness for all things right and humane. There is simply nothing left.
The three main characters of the film are holed up in their once stately and sprawling Southern home and farm. Augusta (Brit Marling), her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their last remaining slave, Mad (a brilliant performance by Muna Otaru), are the only ones left there. The men are presumably still fighting in the war; the women left behind have no information on what is happening past their own fields. Just that fact alone gave me pause; in our current overly connected society, where we know what one of the Kardashians had for breakfast thirty minutes after they eat it, not having any idea whether or not your country was still at war with itself, and whether or not your lives would ever get back to normal, is unfathomable.
Because these tired and dispirited women have no idea when or if their men will be coming home, they have no choice but to carry on: performing chores, trying to coax whatever food they can from the scorched, shriveled up earth, washing their perpetually dusty clothing, eating watery vegetable soup every night in the keeping room…one depressing day bleeding into another. They rarely talk with each other; they try to hold onto some normalcy by clinging to the keeping room, having each of their meals there. At one point, Louise goes to their mother’s closet and tries on one of her dresses (no mention of where their mother is). Augusta is angry, and wants her to take it off- Louise seems to want—need—to carry on as always; she’s petulant, snippy, doesn’t want to do chores, doesn’t like addressing Mad directly (“I don’t like the way she’s lookin’ at me!”), telling Augusta that “she’s the nigga, she should be tendin’ the garden!” Finally Augusta has to break it down for her: “we all niggas now!”
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Louise gets bitten by a rabid raccoon when she should have been working in the fields. Augusta lashes out at Mad, telling her she should have been watching Louise, and then slaps her across the face. Mad squares her shoulders, looks Augusta in the eye, and slaps her back. The scene is short but carries so much meaning; Otaru is able to convey frustration and fear and anger and defiance and determination simply through the look on her face. It is her “we all niggas now, remember?” moment. Brilliant.
Augusta sets off on her horse to get medicine. She is frightened and wary; again not having any information on what is happening “out there”. She encounters the two Union soldiers at the general store/saloon, both drunk and taking a break from raping the barmaid. Augusta gets some sketchy medicinal paste, hightails it back to the farm, and hopes it will help Louise, who is in a feverish stupor.
In the midst of all of this bleakness, Augusta and Mad get drunk in the keeping room, where Augusta laments the fact that she is young, has never experienced love, and that basically this war BLOWS, because women are having to “learn how to be men rather than wives”. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, since what we know about Augusta in the film is that she doesn’t complain; she just does what she has to do—which is pretty much everything on the farm, and she does it as well as any man. This adds a very feminist undertone- she’s not happy about the way things are going but she shows through her actions she really doesn’t need a man, thank you very much. But drunk on moonshine with Mad, she admits that she’d kinda like to be courted, wooed, and taken care of. But this war has changed everything for everybody.
The soldiers track Augusta back to the farm, and now the women need to protect their homestead. The next few scenes are tense and scary, with the soldiers creeping around the house. But in the midst of this drama, Augusta manages to have some intimate scenes with Moses (Sam Worthington), one of the soldiers. When I say “intimate”, they never get closer than a shotgun barrel’s length to each other, but they have a few short, intimate conversations. He gets one look at Augusta and suddenly he can remember what life used to be like, before this godforsaken war. Neither of them has stopped yearning for human connection, despite the truly devastating state of their current existence. Seeing each other, they are reminded that, in a different place and different time, maybe they could have meant the world to each other. Most of this is conveyed through fleeting glances and the way they speak to each other, and both actors do an astonishingly good job with the sparse dialogue.
The film culminates with some very difficult and truly sad scenes, which I will not spoil. Augusta, Louise, and Mad are fed up with men and their war, and realize if they are going to survive they need to rely on themselves and each other. I would imagine this occurred over and over with many women during virtually every war of the 19th and 20th centuries; it is most likely where a lot of our feminist ideals were born. Director Daniel Barber is able to drill that idealism down to one simple story about three women who have to survive and carry on. At one point Mad tells her compatriots, “We ain’t waitin’. We gon hunt him till he ours.”
Barber tells this story well, honestly, and without distracting elements. Every scene of violence carries purpose, the brief but shocking sex scenes are not gratuitous. The Keeping Room is a stark and sad film, but very well done.