Sean Penn’s career shift to directing won him plaudits at the Venice Film Festival over twenty years ago with The Crossing Guard. Since then, he has been a solid if sporadic filmmaker. Unfortunately, The Last Face is not so much solid as a soggy mess.
Charlize Theron plays Wren, the director of her dead father’s medical NGO, who meets Spanish doctor Miguel (Javier Bardem) while visiting a camp in Liberia. Wren is also a trained doctor and is soon roped into getting her hands dirty as a steady trickle of injured are brought in. As the two embark on a relationship, the audience follows them from camp to camp and drama to drama, the action flitting across the globe and over a decade.
However, before any of this unfolds, the film opens with some long-winded foreword that is as silly as it is wordy. With this prologue, Sean Penn sets the scene for the rest of the film, which is over two hours long and full of speechifying doctors spouting earnest rubbish. This foreword is also a warning of sorts: it is very clear about announcing its abhorrence at the horrors perpetrated in various African states, but it also lets us know we are in for a love story. Because the focus is so concentrated on Wren and Miguel, where they are, who they are treating, and how all these wars occur are very much in the background. And because the action shifts in time and place, this adds to the confusion and murkiness of the settings. The only concession to the characters’ ageing over the ten years is that Theron’s hair is a little sleeker.
Erin Dignam is responsible for the truly terrible dialogue. Nobody seems to be able to manage one natural sentence. Because their words don’t ring true, it is impossible to believe in the couple’s relationship. There is also the issue of their first sex together. Having walked through a jungle for a couple of days, narrowly avoiding death and having performed surgery by the light of their headlamps, Miguel lies on his cot under a gauzy mosquito net, all coquettish flirtatiousness, waiting for Wren to pounce. And of course the surgery Miguel and Wren performed by moonlight was a C-section – life is so incredible and sexy!
It is not just the two leads who get all the duff lines. There is a supporting cast made up of fine actors from around the globe: Jean Reno is Dr Love and he gets to say a line that had the audience laughing (at him, not with him), Jared Harris is Dr Farber and he survives the dialogue relatively unscathed simply because he isn’t given many lines. This is a shame as Harris has one of the most gorgeous voices in film. Poor Adele Exarchopoulos plays Wren’s cousin and she has to endure a subplot that just piles melodrama on top of tragedy. The editing is such that it’s hard to know what anybody is talking about anyway.
It’s always a shame to have to write such a damning review as it’s hard not to greatly admire Sean Penn’s work. But this hotchpotch of a story, which lacks clarity and sense, is almost unwatchable. Bardem and Theron are fine actors with a back catalogue between them to prove it. But neither of them can save this film. I thought Beyond Borders was a pretty bad film about earnest sexy people saving nameless folk around the globe, but The Last Face is worse. We expect more of Sean Penn than this.