Redeeming Love is an ambitious but uneasy attempt to add social consciousness and sexual danger to that soft and swooning genre known as the Christian romance. Based on Francine Rivers’s 1991 inspirational mega-bestseller and co-written by Rivers and director D.J. Caruso, the movie tells the story of Sarah, known by her professional name, Angel (Abigail Cowen). Sold into prostitution as a little girl, Angel plies her trade at a house of ill repute in a God-forsaken California mining town. Into her life comes Michael Hosea (Tom Lewis), a young rancher whose prayers for a wife are answered the moment he lays eyes on her. He contrives to marry this answer from heaven and rescue her from the pitiful existence of a perpetual victim. But Angel’s murderous pimp (Eric Dane)—a Dickensian figure who initiated her into the sex trade—reappears to reclaim her.
Faith-based audiences for whom this film has been made will immediately recognize that the movie is a loose retelling of the biblical book of Hosea, which recounts the strange story of a man instructed by God to marry a woman of worthless character. The story, while based on an actual 8th century prophet, functions metaphorically as a picture of God’s grace toward a sinful, wayward people. In the movie, the blushingly handsome, determined Michael relentlessly pursues Angel’s love and remains faithful to her even as her old life threatens to lure her back into a vortex of shame. Rivers’s key contribution—and the probable reason for the novel’s immense success—is to tell the story from Angel’s perspective, plunging us into her troubled psyche as she grapples with feelings of unworthiness. It’s a tribute to Cowen that she is able to communicate some of this complicated psychology despite a burdensome backstory that spells out her character too neatly.
Redeeming Love is a collaboration between several companies, one of which, Pinnacle Peak Pictures, was the studio formerly known as Pure Flix. While someone had the good sense to hire experienced B-lister Caruso, who brings a level of professionalism missing from most faith-based efforts, the movie is fraught with the difficulties of negotiating a balance between its inspirational message and its sordid subject matter. The titillating near-nudity and marital sex, while risible to mainstream audiences, may cross a line for conservative churchgoers. Even the language, which throws caution to the wind and indulges in some PG-13 profanity, falls short of realism. The result is an odd beast that’s perhaps too risky for its target audience and at the same time too tame.
While Rivers and Caruso score points for addressing a social issue (sex trafficking) and wisely tamp down the weird sexual tension between Angel and her former handler, the Hosea figure—young, well-scrubbed, polite, perfect—leaves credibility on the porch. There is some attempt to deepen his character through a subplot involving his ne’er-do-well brother (Logan Marshall-Green), but the character remains idealized and remote. After he pays Angel’s debt to the brothel madam (Famke Janssen, making the most of it), the marriage takes place off-screen in a ceremony performed, apparently, while Angel is semi-conscious after taking a hard beating. It’s a good thing wedding photography hadn’t been invented yet.
It’s a decision typical of the romance novel that the story is taken out of ancient Israel and plopped down not in the present day, but in the mythologized West of the Gold Rush, with its buttery lighting, romantic sunsets, and incongruously contemporary pop songs. The plot touches depths of depravity—including pedophilia and incest—yet everything somehow feels too pretty. Still, it would be foolish to underrate the potential appeal of this movie and its tropes, which mobilize emotions in audiences—and especially of women who have ever found themselves victims in need of rescuing—that no amount of tacky artistic choices can suppress.
Read more reviews by Nathaniel Bell here.