The two lead stars are both winners of acting Oscars -- Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, two of the best actors now who could not seem to go wrong with anything they do. The director also has an Oscar to his name -- Sean Penn. The combination of star power in this film is just so potent it is difficult to resist the temptation to go watch it.
Dr. Wren Petersen is now the head of an aid organization called Medecins du Monde. The film looks back to 2003, when Wren worked as a physician among the refugees in West Africa which was in the throes of civil war. She met and fell in love with Dr. Miguel Leon, another doctor working in the same war-torn fields. The harrowing nature of their risky career advocacy would take a toll on their relationship. Can their love pull them through?
I'd like to think that Theron and Bardem did the best with the roles they're given, but even their talents and good will could not pull their film out from being a boring and unengaging 132-minute affair. Disappointingly, the two actors did not have much chemistry with each other, so scenes about their relationship tend to feel forced and tedious.
To his credit, Bardem did look convincing as a brave and very dedicated doctor. His Dr. Miguel was confident in his surgical skills even in the direst of emergencies, and Bardem acts believably so. On the other hand, Theron was uncharacteristically awkward, both in her scenes as a sensitive field medic, or in the glamorous charity dinner she was hosting. It was so unlike her.
The film only becomes interesting when the story shifts to the refugees and the violent horrors they experience. These scenes of senseless brutality against the villagers jolted my senses as a medical professional as I try to see myself in the shoes of the medical volunteers (I frankly couldn't). The peak was this intense father-and-son scene just before the second hour which was a terrifying shock to witness.
The initial scene compared the brutality of their love to that of the wars in Africa itself, which started the film on a rather absurd note. Director Penn was trying hard to make their love story look and feel more important than it was by using various "artistic" camera techniques. He was telling their love story by flashing back and forth different times and places, which only succeeded in making it more confusing.
You have all the turmoil and suffering of war going on, yet the film focuses on a pair of "white saviors" falling in love. The whole scenario and underlying premise of the film just felt wrong. Even the Oscar pedigrees of its stars and director could not save it. 4/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."