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Film Review: “The Unforgivable” Is Almost Worth Forgiving

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 24th, 2021

Film poster: “The Unforgivable”

The Unforgivable (Nora Fingscheidt, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars. 

There is a lot that is difficult to forgive in The Unforgivable, Nora Fingscheidt’s feature-length remake of Unforgiven, Sarah Wainwright’s 2009 three-part British miniseries. One element stands out, and begs no absolution, which is lead actress Sandra Bullock’s mesmerizing performance as Ruth, a woman just out of prison after a 20-year sentence for killing a local sheriff. Sad, desperate and very lonely, Ruth does her best to avoid making human connections that no one believes she deserves, anyway.

Above all else, the film, when it works, is a solid meditation on how our society continues to punish people even after they do the time. Is that truly justice? Many appear to think so. Unfortunately, there is a lot of ill-managed, excessive melodrama layered on top of the narrative, though a powerful final scene redeems some of what has been mired in muck. By the end, there are definitely parts to recommend, but we mostly dream of what might have been.

l-r: Sandra Bullock and Rob Morgan in THE UNFORGIVABLE ©Netflix

Slowly, through hazy flashbacks that jump in and out of the here and now, Fingscheidt (System Crasher) adds to our understanding of what really happened in the past. Meanwhile, in the present, Ruth must balance her job as a fishmonger with her desire to put the carpentry skills she learned in jail to good use, closely watched by her parole office (Rob Morgan, Bull, underused). A co-worker on the fish line (Jon Bernthal, King Richard, also vastly underutilized) expresses interest, but Ruth’s attention is pretty squarely focused on finding the baby sister she left behind when incarcerated. Much younger, Katherine (Aisling Franciosi, The Nightingale, same deal) was adopted by a family that has never told her about her history, allowing distant memories to fade away. Or not quite, as she still experiences moments of recollection that conveniently grow stronger now that Ruth is free.

There’s an additional subplot involving other fine, equally wasted actors—Viola Davis (Widows) and Vincent D’Onofrio (The Eyes of Tammy Faye)—who play a wife and husband living in the house where the crime occurred, with D’Onofrio’s character proving, in a bit of unpleasant cinematic coincidence, to be just the lawyer Ruth needs, but the less written about the clumsy plot, the better. Instead, let us celebrate Bullock (Ocean’s 8), who always finds a way to be watchable, no matter the material. In The Unforgivable, she suffers for the sins of the script, but thanks to her raw pain, we experience genuine catharsis.

l-r: Sandra Bullock and Jon Bernthal in THE UNFORGIVABLE ©Kimberley French/Netflix

There’s a concluding reveal that is unfortunate, thought it helps motivate actions, as it smooths out Ruth’s thorny biography, making it easier to like her. But the greatest appeal of the story is that she shouldn’t have to be. Ex-cons have rights, or they should. Once the sentence is complete, why not let them move on? When it engages with that notion, The Unforgivable approaches something far greater than it is.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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