America’s current bracket of faith-based cinema may cover a lot of genres and tones — from conspiracy-minded political polemic to wholesome teen high jinks — but “sexy,” practically by definition, has never been part of its lexicon. Spiritual love tends to be prized above all others in the Christian film canon, which makes “Redeeming Love” an odd hybrid entry into its ranks. This gold rush-era period romance wears its Bible-bashing agenda comparatively lightly, as befits a wide Universal Pictures release, and squeezes in as much softly lit, heavy-breathing PG-13 action as it can on the watch of Pinnacle Peak, the evangelical studio formerly known as Pure Flix. That is, admittedly, not a whole lot: In this long, lumbering and ideologically retrograde story of an independent-minded sex worker rescued from a life of sin and abuse by a God-fearing farmer, scandal is less seen than heard about.
Thirty years ago, Francine Rivers’ novel “Redeeming Love” found an unlikely commercial sweet spot for a Christian text. Packaged as a historical romance for the general market, it sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, though its most strenuously Scripture-oriented passages were edited out by the publisher. Scripted by Rivers and director D.J. Caruso, this adaptation is likewise cautious with the fire and brimstone, though that leaves it a pretty passionless exercise on all fronts, with no real ballast to its heroine’s arduous, episodic journey. It remains to be seen whether there’s a significant mainstream audience for a Christian film that trades principally on the dewy teen appeal of its two young leads (including “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” star Abigail Cowen) while also rolling out a bleak, old-fashioned saga of hardship, courtship and soulful redemption.
As if to signal its goodwill toward secular viewers — if not any kind of aversion to cliché — the film opens on a quote not from the good book but from Shakespeare. “All that glitters is not gold,” we are reminded. It patly underlines the script’s scene-setting in 1850s California, where mangy-looking prospectors pan for gold in the riverbed before heading back to the rowdy streets of Pair-o-Dice, where the brothel run by imperious madam Duchess (Famke Janssen, haughtily gliding above it all) is the main game in town. Its prize attraction, meanwhile, is Angel (Cowen), a flaxen-haired veteran of the scene at barely 20 years of age, so in demand that daily lotteries are held for her services.
The first of several ungainly flashbacks reveals that this so-called fallen woman, formerly named Sarah, never had far to fall. Born out of wedlock in New England to doting mother Mae (Nina Dobrev) and wealthy married businessman Alex (Josh Taylor), Sarah has her idyllic childhood cut short when her spiteful father cuts them off financially, plunging Mae into prostitution and consumption. Effectively orphaned — and later officially so, following a particularly unsavory encounter with her estranged dad — the young Sarah is taken on by a sequence of unsuitable guardians. First adopted by abusive Irish gangster Duke (Eric Dane), she finally heads west, and into the chilly clutches of Duchess.
It’s a tumultuous backstory, rendered in broad melodramatic strokes, and nothing in Angel/Sarah’s present-tense narrative rivals it for sheer Sturm und Drang. That rather throws this heavily padded enterprise off-balance, not least as it sprawls out to an unseemly 134 minutes. The bulk of “Redeeming Love” is centered on the protracted, on-off relationship between Angel and Michael (British rising star Tom Lewis, in his big-screen debut), a virtuous, gentlemanly farmer who is besotted with Angel after merely passing her in the street, certain that God has appointed her his bride, and him her savior. His last name is Hosea, and sure enough, the ensuing character-testing romance is awash with superficial references to the Old Testament book of the same name, minus any allegorical reflection on the relationship between God and Israel. If little else, “Redeeming Love” is a film that knows its intellectual limits.
While Michael falls in love at first sight, Angel plays a far longer game, and the together-then-apart dance between them that follows is repetitive to a near-absurd degree. (This is a film with no fewer than three separate shots of a wedding ring being left on a dresser.) Genre-hopping journeyman Caruso treats the love story with approximately the same delicacy and good taste he brought to his last outing, “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage,” all too often resorting to Hallmark sunrises or sweeping mountain vistas when the Harlequin-level human drama needs a shot of grandeur. (South Africa’s Western Cape landscape fills in handsomely for untamed California.) Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers frequently favors shallow-focus trickery that at least forces us into the characters’ space.
Yet Cowen’s headstrong screen presence and Lewis’ puppy-dog charm never combine into actual chemistry, besides which it’s hard to root for a romance built on such paternalistic, moralizing motivations — even with the Lord himself apparently playing Cupid. Does Angel need to be “redeemed” by love, or does she just need men to cut her a break? The film’s plentiful anachronisms may include a cutesy seduction montage scored to Kacey Musgraves’ “Love Is a Wild Thing,” but its gender politics, at least, are authentically immersed in the 19th century.