In director Nora Fingscheidt’s drama, The Unforgivable, Ruth Slater is released from prison, having spent 20 years incarcerated for killing a local sheriff. In the years she has spent locked up, all Ruth has thought about is her sister, Katie, who was adopted after Ruth was arrested and sent away.

Now that she’s back in the real world, Ruth begins to search for Katie, while at the same time assimilating herself into everyday life. After taking on a couple of jobs, she gets some assistance from a lawyer and manages to track down her sister’s whereabouts, even making contact with Katie’s adoptive parents.

But while Ruth is focused on reconnecting with what she has lost, the past comes back to haunt her. The two sons of the deceased sheriff want revenge for their father’s death, and they are prepared to ruin Ruth’s life in order to get what they want.

As Ruth gets closer to seeing Katie things take a turn for the worst. But can Ruth overcome a dangerous obstacle, in order to spend some time with her long-lost sister?

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The Unforgivable stars Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Richard Thomas, and Aisling Franciosi. The movie is based on the 2009 British television drama series, Unforgiven, and following a short theatrical release in November is available to stream on Netflix from today.

Should you stream it? Yes, for Bullock’s performance, and yes if you enjoy slow-moving dramas, but if you are expecting anything beyond this, then you may find yourself disappointed.

The Unforgivable is OK, and is never not well-constructed, but it is plodding. It also suffers from a couple of significant issues and this stops it from reaching its full potential.

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As you can see from the cast list above, The Unforgivable includes some great names, so it’ll come as no surprise for me to say the acting talent is on fine form. The movie is centred around Ruth, as played by Sandra Bullock, and as you might expect, she is excellent in this movie.

Bullock is great in every performance she gives, so sometimes it is easy to overlook what she brings to the screen. So, I’ll make it clear: Bullock is fantastic.

As Ruth, she is able to bring a range of emotions to the story. When the movie calls for fragility, she has it in spades, yet when it needs confidence or anger, she can switch it on without hesitation.

Bullock isn’t afraid to go wherever the part takes her, even if that means she looks battered and bruised in the process. Her performance is strong and it is captivating.

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As for the rest of the cast, they are all good, but sadly they are largely wasted. Davis, D’Onofrio, and Bernthal are all fine actors and they all bring their A-game, but they are given sedate roles and this is a shame.

It’s as if you can feel them hanging around in the background, waiting for their opportunity to play their parts, while Bullock does her thing. Bullock doesn’t overshadow them as such; they simply aren’t given meaty roles to begin with.

If I see D’Onofrio in a movie then I want him to have the opportunity to deliver a great character, and the same goes for Davis and Bernthal. But these support roles aren’t that interesting, and the actors drop in and out of the story.

It feels like a waste of the talent. That’s a shame.

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Small parts aside, the more significant issue here is the pacing of the film. The Unforgivable is slow and the way the film moves for the majority of its runtime is far more problematic.

The final act is great, and injects some much-needed tension into the picture, but everything that comes before this is too relaxed. There’s no urgency to the story; everything unfolds rather leisurely.

The side plot, about the sons wanting to exact revenge on Ruth, could have been the way to bring some suspense to the film and to quicken the pace, but this part of the story all ends up undercooked. Similar to how multiple big-name actors are left on the side-lines, this revenge plot is also left waiting in the wings, only being brought out from time-to-time as reminder it is a story beat that will play out at some point.

For me, the reason this film struggles to hit the high mark is because it focuses a little too much on Bullock. Because she is great in her role, and because Ruth is a compelling character, director Nora Fingscheidt places the lens in this direction for the vast majority of the movie, but this is to the detriment of everything else.

By not elevating the other characters to Ruth’s level, and by not placing a little more focus on the pacing issues, it essentially becomes two-hours of slowly watching Bullock inhabit a role. This is fine if this movie is a two-hour showreel for Bullock, to help her bag an Oscar nomination, but it’s not so great for the audience who simply want some entertainment from a well-rounded picture.

The whole thing feels a touch unbalanced, with the central performance becoming more important than everything else. The end result is a film which is good, but it should be better.

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In terms of the cinematography, the lighting, the setting, the make-up, and all of the little technical elements that go into a picture, they all hit the mark. Fingscheidt brings everything together well, and delivers something which is built on strong foundations.

The sticking point is the execution. A few tweaks here and there would make all the difference, and would make the film feel more than the sum of its parts.

So, The Unforgivable is fine and there’s something here which is worth your time, but it’s not the movie it could have been. By becoming a little too invested in Bullock and by spending too much time on Ruth, the movie forgets to do its own thing, and the finished product is more of a lengthy character study, rather than a gripping drama.   

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