Review by Jacquelin Hipes
There are those rare occasions in film where the whole adds up to far less than the sum of its parts. The viewer is left to wonder where things went so wrong, or worse, how they managed to avoid any semblance of “right” to begin with. Sean Penn’s latest directorial effort, The Last Face, boasts Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as its leads and has a supporting cast that includes Jean Reno and Jared Harris. Billed as an epic love story set amidst civil war, on paper this should be a foolproof success, even early Oscar-bait. On celluloid, however, one is left with a pretentious, muddled mess that debases the serious issues which it pretends to raise awareness of…and that’s putting it kindly.
Ms. Theron stars as Wren Petersen, a doctor and daughter of the founder of a Doctors Without Borders-type organization. Now serving as its director after his death, she visits a medical outpost in Liberia where she meets Miguel Leon (Mr. Bardem), a relief-aid doctor working there. When the facility is evacuated because of rising tensions and their vehicles are commandeered by roadside bandits, Wren and Miguel, along with an assortment of fellow volunteers and patients, must hike their way to safety. They grow close during this ordeal and begin the inevitable affair once they arrive at a refugee camp in Sierra Leon. The film avoids any attempt at straightforward storytelling, however. Scenes jump between decades haphazardly: Wren and her father in Africa, circa 1982; her romance with Miguel in the early 2000s; and all of this is told in flashback from her perspective in 2014, also maddeningly divided between the night of a charity gala in Cape Town and events that began “10 days ago”. It’s as convoluted to watch as it is to summarize.
Theron’s performance is uneven, the wooden delivery of defeat punctuated by scenes of desperate overacting. Bardem fares better, opting instead to underplay his role throughout, and manages to escape somewhat unscathed. Both performances are disappointing in their own way, though, since a mountain of evidence proves both actors are capable of far better. Penn directs with a capital D and all the gusto of a misguided film student. He throws every trick at the viewer and nothing sticks: red filters slapped over violent scenes, jump cuts timed to a ticking clock, wonky angles to drive home just how exhausted a character is. Too many shots are oddly blurred along the edges, as though he does not trust the audience to follow his leads in the frame.
One must wonder that if Mr. Penn truly cares so much about the continuing atrocities in West and Central Africa, why not make a documentary instead? The undeserved loftiness might remain but an audience would be spared the insult of his assumption that they require a story about two beautiful people falling in love in order to stomach the setting of war-torn Liberia. Time and again the camera lingers on the horrors of war: squalid tent cities and refugee camps, starving families, dead children. The scenes are so vivid surely some were pulled verbatim out of first-hand accounts. Yet at the same time Erin Dignam’s script demands that the greatest sympathy should lie with our two well-fed, healthy leads. The idea seems to be that those who witness all these injustices and walk away unscathed are more sympathetic victims than the ones actually starving, falling ill, or dying. Indeed, The Last Face opens with text that seems to equate the pain of civil war with that of a tragic romance. Ugh.
Countless other narrative films provide a more nuanced look at the history of unrest and First World exploitation in Africa: Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, Beasts of No Nation, and The Constant Gardener readily come to mind. Even the Disney Channel original movie The Color of Friendship handles apartheid with more grace than that on display in The Last Face. Spare yourself the agony of Sean Penn’s ego and pop one of those into your DVD player instead.
THE LAST FACE arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD September 5.