The Forgiven

Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh (based on the novel by Lawrence Osborne)
Stars: Jessica Chastain (Jo Henninger), Ralph Fiennes (David Henninger), Matt Smith (Richard Galloway), Caleb Landry Jones (Dally Margolis), Abbey Lee (Cody), Christopher Abbott (Tom Day), Marie-Josée Croze (Isabelle), Alex Jennings (Lord Swanthorne), Fiona O'Shaughnessy (Maisy Joyce), Saïd Taghmaoui (Anouar), Ismael Kanater (Abdellah Taheri), Mourad Zaoui (Hamid)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: U.K.
Country: 2022
The Forgiven
The Forgiven

John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven, which was adapted from the acclaimed 2012 novel by Lawrence Osborne, is an intriguing drama about awful, seemingly irredeemable people—a grueling portrait of the wealthy-hedonist class that most of us only read about in sordid news stories. It is also a drama about cultural conflict and the noxious residue of colonialism, where moneyed Westerners treat foreign countries as exotic playgrounds and the people who live there as ignorable background fodder or potential servants. If the film has any virtue, it lies in its clear-eyed depiction of the poisonous intersection of money and privilege and how it warps human sensibilities into something that would be comedic in its arrogance if it weren’t so tragic in its consequences. The problem, though, is that the film seems to have little else to say, which means that its intrigue and drama plays largely as cover for its lack of true depth.

Part of the reason The Forgiven is so shallow is that McDonaugh’s characters are so shallow. A more studied and engaging film would present us with characters of some depth and complexity; virtually all of the characters in The Forgiven are single-note ciphers for a certain categories of people. The plot revolves around a miserably married couple, David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, who previously played a very different couple in Fiennes’s 2011 Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus ). They have travelled to Morocco to attend a multi-day bacchanal thrown by David’s old college friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith), who has turned an ancient stone villa several hours outside of Tangier into a palatial weekend getaway. Richard and his snide lover, Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones), would be dangerous stereotypes of the old flamboyant-hedonistic homosexual, if all the other characters attending the party weren’t just as bad, if not worse. They include a perverse English lord (Alex Jennings), who shows up with a bevy of scantily clad young socialites, a smug French photographer (Josee Croze), and a handsome-shallow financial analyst named Tom (Christopher Abbott), who immediately starts flirting with Jo, whose evident boredom with her marriage to the older David makes her ripe for temptation.

However, for David and Jo the party is pre-empted by a fatal accident on the dark desert road leading up to Richard’s villa. David, who has been drinking all day, is fighting with Jo about directions when a young man steps in front of their car. David hits him and kills him, which sets off a chain of events that leads to the arrival of the boy’s father, Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater), who demands that David return with him to their small village to assist with the burial, as is their custom. David at first rejects the notion, sneering at the very idea of getting into a car with these mysterious foreigners (“They could be ISIS for all I know,” he says at one point), but he eventually relents, allowing himself to leave his monied world behind and travel into the heart of the culture that, up until now, he has not cared to engage in any way.

In doing so, David opens himself to the possibility of seeing behind the edges of his own immense privilege, not just by recognizing the poverty and struggle and pain of those around him, but by seeing others as fellow human beings. Although there is a constant, nagging fear that Abdellah intends to violently avenge his son’s death, the interactions between him and David are largely about coming to a mutual understanding, one that is forged between two men who could not be any more different. The use of names is crucial in this regard, as David’s own humanity awakens when he begins using the actual name of the boy he killed. We also see this in his relationship with Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), who drives him to and from Abdellah’s village, and Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui), a soft-spoken servant at Richard’s villa who loathes his position, but must still maintain airs.

In its best moments, The Forgiven shows us how humanity never fully disappears, but is rather repressed. David slowly awakens to his own moral deficits, whereas Jo simply sinks deeper into her own in his absence. Unfortunately, this moral-dramatic arc is largely flat because we know next to nothing about these characters other than the fact that they are awful, uncaring, and narcissistic. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh has made several well-received films over the past decade, including The Guard (2011) and War on Everyone (2016); those films were built around dark humor, which is utterly absent here. Granted, there is some fun to be had in the performances, especially Matt Smith’s Richard, who lords over the carnal shenanigans unfolding in his villa from a casual distance that makes you wonder if he throws these parties for little other than their voyeuristic appeal. Similarly, Christopher Abbott’s Tom shows some hints of self-awareness, which is what arguably makes him even worse; he knows he’s terrible, but just keeps on with it. It is only David who begins to see the world outside of himself, and it is too bad we don’t know more about him to better understand why his experiences in the desert are enough to crack his armor.

Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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