“The Last Face”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Last Face” (Saban Films)

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Years ago, Robin Wright, who was married to Sean Penn, optioned this concept as a “passion project,” involving both Penn and Javier Bardem, but funding fell through. When Wright and Penn divorced, Penn obviously got custody, casting his then-fiancée, Charlize Theron, in the role Wright had wanted to play.

Born in South Africa, Theron might have been a superb choice, but Penn was so obviously besotted with her beauty that he rapturously photographs her like a glamorous fashion model, not an altruistic doctor.

That – among other elements – dilutes the veracity of this fragmented, savagely realistic depiction of war-ravaged people.

The melodramatic plot revolves around Dr. Wren Petersen (Theron), the uptight daughter of the famous humanitarian founder of Medecins du Monde, who meets roguish surgeon Miguel Leon (Bardem) at a Monrovian refugee camp. Sparks ignite!

“Before I met Miguel, I was an idea I had. I didn’t really exist,” she muses.

Years later, when Wren has become director of an international aid agency, their paths cross again in Sierra Leone, Liberia and South Sudan, where Wren reverts to her roots, joining Miguel and his blood-soaked cohorts (Jean Reno, Jared Harris), desperately trying to save lives amid barbarism.

In his first directorial duty since “Into the Wild” (2007), Penn, recognized as a human-rights activist in Haiti, relies on Erin Dignam’s shallow, preachy script, filled with whispered, often incoherent dialogue.

While a prologue proclaims the “impossible brutality” of the West African conflict, Penn’s focus is on the love between a man and a woman, as if the stench of death is some kind of an aphrodisiac.

There’s a resonant “Hurt Locker” moment when Wren muses about an “addiction to emergency,” which is not surprising since it’s chronicled by “Hurt Locker” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd.

But how does one deal with lines like – “You know that girl I was dancing with? She watched her sister get raped to death, and she was raped as well? “

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Last Face” is a gruesome, gravely disappointing 3 – Penn’s pompous indulgence.

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