Last weekend when my roommates and I braved the winter storm to see Redeeming Love in theaters, I was expecting a tired, watered-down, Christian romance film that would make me laugh and have little to no impact on my life. I could not have been more wrong. I walked out of that theater with a new understanding of God’s love and extraordinary forgiveness thanks to this beautifully produced work.
The film is based on the New York Times bestseller novel Redeeming Love (1991) by Francine Rivers and dives into the story of a prostitute named Angel (Abigail Cowen) and a farmer named Michael Hosea (Tom Lewis) during the mid-1800’s California Gold Rush. Angel, sold into prostitution as a child and living in a brothel in Pair-A-Dice, catches the attention of Michael, who owns a farm twenty miles outside of town and is determined to marry her. She is broken by her past and totally devoid of faith but is recklessly pursued by Michael’s unconditional love time and time again. The story is loosely based on the first three chapters of Hosea, where God calls Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer as a metaphor for how He loves and pursues the people of Israel despite their repetitive spiritual prostitution.
With excellent filming, beautiful scenery, and powerful acting, the film flawlessly captures the depths of God’s love for us despite our own gravitation towards sin. In the film, Angel leaves Michael three times due to her feelings of worthlessness and shame. She is consumed by her guilt and has a warped view of love, causing her to mistrust God’s voice and Michael’s kindness. Despite this, Michael continues to cherish her and pray for her, even when his own faith falters.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Angel abandoned Michael for the first time. She left on foot, getting tangled in briers and weeds and falling over tree roots, unsure of the path back to Pair-A-Dice. Michael chases after her and gives her two options: walk a mile back home with him where she will be safe, respected, and free from harm, or continue on her twenty-mile route to the brothel where she will be used, enslaved, and objectified. She ultimately decides to return home with Michael, and when she sits down to rest, Michael begins washing her dirty, blood-stained feet. She is dumbfounded by the love and care he shows her and asks him why, to which he responds, “One mile can be harder to walk than twenty.”
There are two major criticisms that movie reviews online have hurled at this film. The first is that the Christian principles within the movie are glossed over and God himself is rarely mentioned. However, there are several references to prayer, Michael’s relationship to God, and Angel’s own struggle with belief in God after her mother’s death. Michael attempts to reconcile Angel to God numerous times throughout the story: “Sometimes you have to leave behind what you were born into to become who God meant you to be.” In a final scene, Angel prays to God for strength to tell the truth about the man who bought her as a child. While the themes of faith and spirituality in this film may not have been as obvious as they are in other Christian works, instead of weakening the story, the undercurrent of faith throughout the entire film strengthens the narrative by providing a realistic interpretation of what it is like to follow and doubt God.
A second popular criticism of Redeeming Love is its mature nature and PG-13 rating. Common Sense Media’s expert review says that while the movie has some themes of compassion and forgiveness, it is also riddled with sex, violence, domestic abuse, partial nudity, references to rape, and non-explicit sex scenes, which I also witnessed in the film. While this may not be the movie you choose to watch with your young teenager, there is an argument for why such heavy themes are exposed.
Angel’s sordid past, which included a vast variety of sexual and moral sins, is shown to draw a stark contrast between her life before and after Michael, much like our lives before and after coming to Christ. There are multiple implications of Angel in bed with clients, violently beaten by brothel-owners, and raped as a child to reveal the challenges she experienced during her life of prostitution. She is tormented and filled with guilt about her past, resulting in her running away from the good life because she believes she deserves the bad. Even Michael’s own brother-in-law, Paul, tells her, “Michael deserves a decent girl. Not you.” We see this darkness in order that the light of her life with Michael be even more apparent: to see her heal, grow, make friends, find faith, and learn to love. All that said, the film is not explicit. The filmmakers are not trying to shock viewers with violence and sex, but they do provide enough background to demonstrate a contrast of the pain she experienced and the love and forgiveness she is shown.
There is also a love scene between Angel and Michael that, while it does present some partial nudity, portrays that she has not only been redeemed spiritually but her views on marriage and intimacy have also been transformed. For so long, Angel thought of sex as a currency, an experience where she would be used, abused, and tossed aside afterward. But through her love with Michael, she is shown that marriage is not slavery but a promise, and sex is not meant to be exploitation but an expression of their vows and a gift from God.
How does the movie compare to Francine River’s original novel? I had never heard of the story until I watched the movie, but immediately after seeing it I bought the book and read it front to back. It is my experience that the book is always better than the movie, and Redeeming Love confirmed this. The film was amazing and stayed true to the book’s storyline and major scenes. However, there are some things in the book that just cannot be truly captured in 2 hours and 14 minutes, including a few minor scenes as well as some private thoughts of Michael and Angel. One of the most notable differences is that in the book Michael refuses to call Angel by that name because he no longer sees her as she once was. Instead, he calls her Mara, Tirzah, and Amanda, until she finally reveals to him at the end of the story that her real name is Sarah. We don’t see this in the movie, likely because it would have been difficult for an audience who had not read the book to follow.
Redeeming Love tells a captivating story of a journey from pain and prostitution to forgiveness and freedom that is representative of our own path to finding salvation and identity in Christ. It illustrates heavy topics tastefully, captures the essence of true love exquisitely, and overall stays true to the original novel’s major themes and plotline. If you’re looking for a movie that will open your eyes to God’s love and pull at your heartstrings, Redeeming Love is in theaters now and definitely worth the watch.
And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods.” – Hosea 3:1