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'The Unforgivable' review: Sandra Bullock shines in a movie that should've been a miniseries

Sandra Bullock  in Netflix's "The Unforgivable."

Sandra Bullock  in Netflix's "The Unforgivable."  Credit: NETFLIX/Kimberley French

MOVIE "The Unforgivable"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Sandra Bullock stars in "The Unforgivable," a drama based on the 2009 British miniseries "Unforgiven." The Oscar winner plays Ruth Slater, newly paroled after serving 20 years for killing a sheriff who was enforcing her eviction.

Reacclimating into society proves extraordinarily difficult — she's put up at a gritty Seattle halfway house and finds a job gutting fish in a factory.

There are some crimes you simply can't come back from, advises her parole officer Vincent Cross (Rob Morgan), who suggests that she not attempt to reestablish contact with the much-younger sister she once cared for after their parents died.

That's advice Ruth rejects, with the help of lawyer John Ingram (Vincent D'Onofrio), who lives with his wife Liz (Viola Davis) and children in the house Ruth once shared with her sister.

That sister Katie (Aisling Franciosi), now in her mid-20s, has just flickers of memories of her traumatic past — her adopted parents Rachel Malcolm (Linda Emond) and Michael (Richard Thomas) quite reasonably have little interest in bringing Ruth back into her life.

Oh, and if all that weren't enough, Steve Whelan (Will Pullen), the son of the sheriff Ruth killed, wants revenge.

MY SAY There's a good reason this story was once told as a miniseries: that's a lot of plot for a movie that clocks in at just under two hours.

Looping in so many characters with competing motivations means many get shortchanged.

The bloat means an actor like Davis, one of the best in the entire business, has almost nothing to do. The same goes for Jon Bernthal, playing Ruth's colleague at the fish business.

So there's barely time to get to know Katie as more than a one-dimensional figurehead for Ruth's attempt to right her past wrongs. She plays piano, she suffers blackouts, and impressionistic images from the past occasionally invade her present. There's nothing more to the character.

The core narrative remains strong: it's possible to humanize someone like Ruth while still being clear-eyed about the heinous crime.

Bullock depicts her as a permanently fractured person. Guilt and sadness have played a major role in erasing any hint of the individual that may have once existed, but so has the reality of her post-prison existence as a convicted cop killer. You just can't shake that.

Yet the director Nora Fingscheidt doesn't seem to recognize the strength inherent in gifting such an excellent actor with a genuinely complex role. So, in working with screenwriters Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz and Courtenay Miles, she needlessly complicates matters.

The authentic touches become subsumed by the Hollywood-style convolutions: the revenge plot, for example, exists just to provide a thriller-style scene in a movie that doesn't need one.

This story needs time to breathe and to develop, to grow from an organic place. That's why a miniseries makes sense. But it can't get it when there are so many characters to involve and everyone seems to be in a rush.

BOTTOM LINE Sandra Bullock is excellent, but "The Unforgivable" tries to cram in too much plot and suffers for it.

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