D.J. Caruso’s historical drama/romance/morality play “Redeeming Love” opens with the Shakespeare quote “all that glitters is not gold,” and a pair of hands thrusting a pan into a river, searching for treasure. It sets the time and place in Gold Rush-era California, in the town of Pair-a-Dice circa 1850, but the quote has no bearing on the tale that unfolds over the next two hours, based on the smash hit 1991 novel by Francine Rivers. There may be gold in them thar hills, but “Redeeming Love” doesn’t yield any cinematic riches.
The movie, rated PG-13 for language, subject matter and brief nudity, opens Friday in wide release.
Our heroine in need of redeeming is Angel (Abigail Cowen), a sex worker and the hottest ticket in Pair-a-Dice, her time raffled off by the Duchess (Famke Janssen) to a frothing mob of men that gathers daily in front of the Palace brothel. As a child, Angel was trafficked into sex work by a smooth pimp named Duke (Eric Dane) after the death of her destitute mother (Nina Dobrev), who seems to waste away from shame after she and her daughter are rejected by Angel’s father, who is married to another woman. For her part, Angel doesn’t seem to mind her life in Pair-a-Dice all that much, though a knight in dusty denim will soon shake things up.
Her redeemer is Michael (Tom Lewis), a folksy farmer who prays for a wife who likes to go fishing. When he lays eyes on Angel, he chuckles that God has a sense of humor, as his heaven-sent intended wife is the highest-priced prostitute in town. Nevertheless, he persists, much to Angel’s chagrin, showing up to chat as often as he can afford.
One could look at the plot of this film from two different perspectives, one Pollyannaish, the other deeply cynical. The filmmakers behind “Redeeming Love” want the audience to see Michael as a faithful farmer who falls in love at first sight with a local sex worker and rescues her from her life of exploitation, marrying her and bringing her to his farm and teaching her what it means to be loved, always offering forgiveness when she strays. On the other hand, one could see Michael as an isolated religious zealot who believes he receives a message from God that a local sex worker is intended to be his wife, spurring him to kidnap her from the brothel while she’s in a weakened state, pressing her into a life of wifely duties though she attempts repeatedly to escape.
Every female character in “Redeeming Love” is a wife, a whore or dead, and the story lacks any imagination to envision a woman’s “redemption” (if she even needs that) outside of a heteropatriarchal family structure, arguing that what women need is for men to carry them off to the country to save them from themselves with some fresh air and brisk housework. It begs the question, why adapt this source material now? Dig too deep and we might not like the answer.
Stuck in this largely infantilized role, Cowen imbues Angel with as much verve and spunk as she can; she’s often funnier and darker than necessary, offering a refreshing dash of acid to temper the sickly sweetness. But it’s so hard to shake the lingering icky feelings about this text, which plays like “tradwife” fan fiction, the 19th-century setting protecting the story from the pesky “women’s lib” movement, which would suggest that Angel have her own autonomy, that she might be redeemed by her own self-love. However, such radical concepts have no purchase here.