Romantic period dramas will always be a staple in the movie world, and 2022 starts with an adaptation of Francine Rivers’ best-selling 1991 novel Redeeming Love. The 1850s Gold Rush in California, in the dusty deserts of the state, seems like the perfect setting to tell a story of redemption and glory. But it doesn’t unfold in the way audiences familiar with these narratives may expect. The heroine isn’t looking for gold nor a shot of fame in the Wild West. The setting is confined to the small world and bedroom she lives in the Palace. When a man spots her outside one day and decides that she’ll be the woman he marries, her entire world changes.
The novel version of Redeeming Love was well-cherished by audiences globally, selling over three million copies since published in 1991. The novel was also translated into thirty languages, thus making this one of the anticipated releases of the year for the novel’s fans. Redeeming Love’s cast features familiar faces like Abigail Cowen of The Winx Saga, The Vampire Diaries’ Nina Dobrev, and Logan Marshall-Green.
Cowen is no stranger to Christian-based dramas; she previously appeared in the romantic drama I Still Believe in 2020. Dobrev, too, is quite familiar with working in historical contexts in this period. But this isn’t Keira Knightley’s Pride and Prejudice or Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled: it’s a movie that has its roots in faith and the belief that religion has the power to completely transform one’s life, even if they are living at the bottom of society.
Redeeming Love’s protagonist is Angel, a girl who once lived happily with her mother. She meets her father for the first time when she’s six years old, but the story of her birth isn’t a happy one. She was born out of an affair and out of wedlock. When her father visits, his cruelty, and dismissal of the relationship and Angel’s existence is only the first trigger for something much bigger. Angel’s mother and her life spirals, leading to a situation where her mother turns to prostitution to survive.
Unfortunately, she becomes ill and dies, leading Angel to renounce the Christian faith that she was raised with. After her mother’s death, Angel is sold and becomes a child prostitute, where, years later as an adult, she still is stuck in the same position she started in. There’s one mantra that gets Angel through the circumstances she’s living in. She will one day have the chance to make her own decisions, and she believes that men will only use the women they surround themselves with for their own pleasure. The film utilizes flashbacks and direct dialogue to convey the important parts of the story, particularly when it comes to Angel’s history as a prostitute.
However, it seems as if everything considered sinful is checked off one by one in the movie. At times, it seems justified, fitting for the story at hand, but then it begins to feel as if it’s all crammed in to make a statement rather than serve a purpose. The story becomes theatrics of tragedy, something pushed past the boundaries of needing justification to occur. Angel seemingly is a doomed heroine in the viewer’s eye and is someone set up to fail without an external force to intervene.
Enter: the lone cowboy and his dog. His name is Michael, and he is here to teach Angel about love and faith. Michael’s patient in his pursuit of Angel coming around to love him, as he doesn’t give up and continues to ask her to marry him. Even as she yells and hits him, he continues to be gentle and takes care of her wounds. After a shameful confession that Angel doesn’t believe in God and that Michael will only suffer in her presence, an intimate mash-up of domestic scenes ensues. The couple is seen doing chores around the farm and cooking chicken, almost lovingly looking into each other’s eyes despite what happened in the previous scene.
Romantic dramas tend to unfold in a particular way: boy meets girl, and they fall in love. Redeeming Love does not try to deny that it follows this formulaic approach. In this case, the boy, Michael, rides into town from his farm, spots Angel dressed in all black, and he immediately decides that this is the woman he’s going to marry. Naturally, this occurs after he prays for “any kind of woman.” Despite the outside world telling him to give up on her, he doesn’t, leading to an unofficial marriage that Angel only consents to mockingly.
The story for Redeeming Love is based on the 1991 novel, which, after its first publication, contained heavy religious elements. This movie’s story is also a retelling of the Book of Hosea, so its foundations completely rely on the borrowed notion that an unfaithful relationship between a husband and a wife directly correlates with the relationship between the God of the land (originally Yahweh, the national God of Ancient Israel) and his people. Religion plays a role in the movie; Michael prays for a wife, Angel renounces religion and quite literally becomes the embodiment of a fallen angel, and Christian imagery is scattered throughout.
This notion between salvation and damnation is evident in the construct of space in the movie; Michael’s abode, a humble farmhouse away from the city, is much brighter than its counterpart. Angel’s life at the Palace is dark and dim, while the beginning of her flashbacks to childhood are bright and colorful, almost whimsical at times. The movie plays with space, adding a particular nuance that defies the expectations of the setting and constructs the story is placed within. A sense of claustrophobia exists in Angel’s world, and she isn’t capable of being liberated from her instinct of fight or flight—or, at least, until she’s able to heal her relationship with religion and become a law-abiding citizen.
Redeeming Love does try to redeem the main character and cleanse her of her past sins. Even as she shows herself unfaithful in the contest of Michael’s religious beliefs, he still refuses to give up on her. However, the movie fails to subvert the tropes of the genre. Because it follows a retelling of the Book of Hosea, the storyline doesn’t move past the concept of the original sin and that women have been blamed for the root of their suffering. Redeeming Love builds upon this narrative, thus creating something that reiterates that Angel is not to blame for her situation. It implies because she is a woman, she is placed into this unfortunate series of events.
Angel’s story relies on the tragedy of her situation, making her a flat character. Through the heavy use of exposition and flashbacks scattered throughout the film, the audience learns bits and pieces of the horrors inflicted upon her body. However, her character isn’t developed outside her salvation. Michael repeats she doesn’t need to be bound by her past, that she doesn’t need to change for him, but, at the end of the film, it concludes that she does need to change to become someone worthy of a better situation. By choosing this path, the movie turns on itself and demonstrates that it isn’t okay to live that life as a sex worker, even though many women didn’t have a choice.
By denying Angel’s past, Michael allows her to see herself as something more than a prostitute, but it also creates an unrealistic void where he can’t understand where she’s coming from in her actions and decisions. It also sets an expectation that one must alter themselves and their reality to become acceptable or deserving of love, then they must redeem themselves to have a good life. In this context, in the 1800s, it delves into the moral questions and philosophy behind sex work and whether it can be considered a real career in a world where women like Angel couldn’t get real jobs or have family support.
Redeeming Love has a cast largely fueled by newcomers driving the movie. It reminds us that historical dramas can include realistic diversity, although there are questionable decisions about the prostitutes who aren’t white and the violence inflicted upon their bodies. It attempts to humanize these women stuck in unfortunate circumstances, although it relies heavily on the genre’s tropes to tell this story. This is no Clint Eastwood Western film, nor does it try to pretend to be something grander than it is. Our cowboy merely believes in God and the faith that his wife can change her ways, allowing the happy ending everyone is wishing for.
The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield would love to join forces with fellow Spider-People Tom Holland and Tobey Maguire again.
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