Review: The Forgiven movie is more than a debaucherous morality tale


On the surface, The Forgiven has many of the hallmarks of a morality tale, a movie about compromised, fallen people and the lessons they have to learn.

But this sumptuous drama starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain is a much spikier story, one where lines and affinities are not so clear. Are there obvious villains or are those characters, in some way, victims of their debaucherous, privileged circumstances?

What about the actual victims? Are they the righteously aggrieved or do their actions push them towards being aggressors? The Forgiven luxuriates in the grey zone, a provocative and incisive film that asks more questions than it provides answers.

Adapted from a novel by writer Lawrence Osborne, The Forgiven is directed by John Michael McDonagh, the Irish filmmaker who swam in similarly murky waters with his previous works, The Guard and Calvary, both starring Brendan Gleeson.

For The Forgiven, McDonagh is telling a story further afield, in the arid deserts of Morocco.

British toff David Henninger (Fiennes) and his American wife Jo (Chastain) are approaching Tangiers by boat when he, adorned with a Panama hat, looks up from his newspaper and says “L’Afrique”. His expression of that one word is dripping with superiority, a colonialist attitude that would come to hang over the whole film.

Because even though The Forgiven takes place in the present day, you have to constantly remind yourself of its contemporary setting through updated car models on screen or the occasional glimpse of a smartphone.

This story of expats in an “exotic” locale is laden with the colonialist vibe of so many European misadventures in North Africa, and that’s part of its point.

That even in 2022, imperialism is still pervasive. It’s manifested in the alarming gaps between the haves-and-have-nots and that divide is marked, more often than not, by your cultural heritage and skin colour.

The Forgiven emphasises that disparity by exploring it through the prism of an accident and what its fallout reveals about the characters but also the worlds they merely co-exist in.

David and Jo have to drive hours to a bacchanalian weekend party thrown by their friends, Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry-Jones), at a sprawling desert compound, complete with servants and reprobate guests.

Arguing, speeding and drunk, David hits a young boy and kills him. David and Jo bundle the body into the car and drive him to the party. Not wanting to disrupt the atmosphere, Richard orders the body to be put away until the police can arrive in the morning.

Richard, with his immense wealth, is clearly connected to the local authorities who promptly declare the death an accident.

But when the father of the dead child, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), show up to claim the body, complications arise. Abdellah wants David to accompany him back for the boy’s burial and while David is reluctant, fearing extra-legal justice and blackmail, he eventually acquiesces.

David is not yet contrite about the event and The Forgiven charts his physical and emotional journey as he’s confronted with his deed and a family’s grief.

The stark contrast of Abdellah’s lack of privilege versus the gratuitous indulgence of the party comes up in small moments. It’s not even in the grand sweeping speeches or epiphanies but when, for example, the fireworks go off at the same time as when Abdellah is loading his dead son into the car.

There is tragedy and injustice in the absurd. That’s when The Forgiven is at its most effective.

Such as when a French agitator, who has spent the weekend spouting righteous anger about American exceptionalism and crimes in Afghanistan, is revealed to be a writer from the lifestyle section of The New York Times. She is perpetuating the same myths – and, ultimately, lavishing in a free getaway where she’s waited on by brown people.

The Forgiven may be blistering but it’s still nuanced enough to be intellectually thorny.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Forgiven is in cinemas now



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