BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Director D.J. Caruso took a massive gamble casting relatively unknown actors Abigail Cowen and Tom Lewis as the stars of his “Redeeming Love.” He banked on his performers bringing to life the star-crossed pair to such a high degree that it would outweigh the lack of star power at the heart of the movie.

Although Caruso should get great credit for thinking outside the normal casting guidelines, the sad truth is that this casting gamble doesn’t completely pay off. Lewis manages to give life to his character who has a pure heart but Cowen fails to rise to the widely demanding aspects of her character.

“Redeeming Love” – based on the novel Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers – is the story of violence, love, incest, hope, hatred and forgiveness that unfolds during the California Gold Rush of 1850. The tale is set in the 1900s but the elements of sex trafficking, corruption and sexual violations resonate as if set in today’s world.

Cowen plays Angel, a young woman who was sold into prostitution as a child. Her life has become an endless cycle of strange men, abuse and loss.

That changes when Michael sees her. The young farmer has an endless faith that Angel will one day be his bride. For that to happen, he must first free her from the sexual bondage that holds her down and then try to remove the shackles of self-loathing that makes her even more of a prisoner.

The novel has remained on multiple fiction bestseller lists for over 15 years and has been published in more than 30 languages. The central theme of the novel has to do with the redeeming love of God towards sinners. There are elements of that in the movie but the dark themes eclipse much of the positive message. It is the relentlessness of those dark themes that proved the undoing for Cowen.

Films that deal with efforts to redeem someone who has fallen from grace tend to start with a major cataclysmic event and then show the person growing and changing by overcoming less oppressive situations. Caruso offers his characters a few breathers but in the case of Angel, it is a rapid-fire series of despair, hope, despair and hope. This barrage of failure and redemption eventually wears very thin.

Cowen starts off handling this onslaught of darkness – some so sickening that it is odd to see it in a faith-based production – but eventually her work begins to show less and less life. It is a sharp contrast to the perpetual goodness that Lewis must show in his character.

Caruso tries to give Cowen some support with the casting of veteran actors Famke Janssen and Eric Dane in supporting roles. Instead of being a help, they are both so good they make the flaws in the work by Cowen seem even more magnified.

Cowen was fighting a losing battle. The script by Rovers and Caruso has such a negative slant when it comes to Cowen’s character it would have been a challenge even for a more seasoned performer. Cowen gives a great effort but she just can’t find the energy to take her character to the final moments that should leave the audience happy rather than just relieved.

When it comes to faith-based movies, “Redeeming Love” does not fall under the standard format for the genre. The spiritual elements are completely overshadowed by the darkness of the story.

It is OK to create a film that delves into areas that are incredibly hard to watch. The key is to find the right players to be able to handle the dark and the light. Lewis had it easy as his character never waivers in his hopes. Where the film slips is with pushing Cowen to deal with an avalanche of evil without the acting experience to keep her from being buried.

“Redeeming Love” opens in theaters Jan. 21. Please note that the film has earned a PG-13 rating but there are some extremely adult moments in the production.

Movie review: “Redeeming Love” – 2 stars

Cast: Tom Lewis, Abigail Cowen, Famke Janssen, Eric Dane.

Director: D. J. Caruso

Rated: PG-13 for partial nudity, violence, language, sexual content

Running time: 122 minutes.