Sean Penn's pompous, ethically bankrupt humanitarian aid drama 'The Last Face' would surely have worked better as a charity single. Replace Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron (playing star-crossed lovers working as doctors in war zones) with Bono, and substitute barely written suffering and doe-eyed black African characters with tear-jerking news images, and you can imagine a donation hotline number scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Instead, we get this vain mess, a vacuous romance with real human pain as background noise and where the only honest pleasure is waiting to see what misstep it will take next.
You suspect 'The Last Face' might be bad when the muddled intro text links the suffering of Liberia and South Sudan with a 'common romance'. Your suspicions grow early on when our attention is drawn to a live piece of sand art during a heartfelt speech by NGO boss Dr Wren Petersen (Theron). They grow further when Theron's endless, Terrence Malick-style wispy voiceover trades in shallow wisdoms like 'sometimes faces are an illusion'.
Wren used to be a charity doctor in the field but now she's a big charity cheese based in Geneva. Her ex-lover Dr Miguel Leon (Bardem) still practices in war zones, and we first meet him in danger in South Sudan in the present. But then the story takes us back to where the two met: Liberia in 2003, where their love grows to the tragic backdrop of endless death and displacement. There's nothing like working together on a fatal Caesarean section in the jungle to cement a couple's romantic bond.
Hilariously, the film closes soon after a speech pleading for us not to let refugees become 'faceless'. But that's exactly the crime the film commits. It prioritises a will-they-won't-they romance over the reality and nuances of the work these people are doing in the field, and it makes zero effort to engage with the details of the situations in either Liberia or South Sudan: notwithstanding the different landscapes, they may as well be interchangeable. It does leave you with one burning, penetrating question: has anyone ever really let off a cloud of paper sky lanterns in a Liberian refugee camp? Who knows, but boy do they look pretty.