Dramatic advocacy isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it can be when preoccupation with the “message” derails the drama, which is precisely what occurs in this dour, disturbing but ultimately unconvincing Lifetime project. Starring a miscast Mira Sorvino, “Human Trafficking” bludgeons its point home for nearly four hours, and then closes with an honest-to-God speech to ensure that nobody missed it. Lifetime can bask in kudos for attempting to shed light on such matters, but it’s better to begin with the story, as opposed to letting the public-relations campaign cart lead the horse.
Bearing a modest (and pale) resemblance to the drug drama “Traffic” in its reliance on intersecting plots, “Human Trafficking” focuses primarily on the slavery of Eastern European women, girls and children who are kidnapped and exploited in the sex trade. As such, the production features numerous scenes meant to convey the dehumanizing, horrifying manner in which they are raped, mistreated and terrified, including threats of harm to their families in the Ukraine or Prague should they attempt to escape.
Enter Kate Morozov (Sorvino), who joins the U.S.’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, hoping to catch the trafficker behind the suicides of three young Russian girls.
“I want to nail the pig who did this,” she tells her boss, played by Donald Sutherland.
Much of the first half dwells on the ordeals of those abducted and abused, as well as the ruthless crime lord Karpovich (Robert Carlyle) who orchestrates the ring. The victims include single mother Helena (Isabella Blais) lured in by a prospective lover; 16-year-old Czech Nadia (Laurence Leboeuf) captured through her dreams of modeling; and a 12-year-old American girl (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) abducted in the Philippines.
As directed and shot by Christian Duguay (whose credits include the CBS Hitler longform starring Carlyle), the script by Agatha Dominik and Carol Doyle doesn’t pull punches. There are repeated scenes, in fact, of girls looking through soulless, pleading eyes while being subjected to torment or humiliation. As with “Traffic,” Duguay also employs a washed-out palette that reinforces the sense of hopelessness.
Again cast as the heaviest of heavies, Carlyle is an appropriately evil villain, and the subject matter is undeniably compelling. Yet to call it heavy-handed would be to exhibit a grand gift for understatement, and the plot is at best scattered, including an absurd thread involving Nadia’s father (Remy Girard), who infiltrates Karpovich’s operation hoping to find her.
That said, the weakest link remains Sorvino, who looks ridiculous tucking her blond mane under an “ICE” baseball cap and kicking in doors. Nor does her boss’ advice that she “trust her gut” lead to police work that makes much sense, though he’s full of such lame cop-show dialogue, later telling her, “You got plenty of time to mourn on your day off.”
Lifetime’s press kit accompanying the movie includes “endorsement quotes and awards” thanking the network for tackling the issue, which is certainly laudable. As actual viewing experiences go, however, the net effect feels like nothing so much as sitting through a four-hour public-service announcement.