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The Forgiven

This thorny satirical drama benefits from Ralph Fiennes at his best, playing a loathsome wealthy Londoner holidaying in Morocco and immersed in a tragedy.
By Sarah Ward
July 28, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
July 28, 2022
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Patience is somewhat of a virtue with The Forgiven. It would be in it, too, if any of its wealthy white characters hedonistically holidaying in Morocco were willing to display the trait for even a second. Another addition to the getaways-gone-wrong genre, this thorny satirical drama gleefully savages the well-to-do, proving as eager to eat the rich as can be, and also lays bare the despicable coveting of exoticism that the moneyed think is an acceptable way to splash plentiful wads of cash. There's patently plenty going on in this latest release from writer/director John Michael McDonagh, as there typically is in features by the filmmaker behind The Guard, Calvary and War on Everyone. Here, he adapts Lawrence Osborne's 2012 novel, but the movie that results takes time to build and cohere, and even then seems only partially interested in both. Still, that patience is rewarded by The Forgiven's stellar lead performance by Ralph Fiennes, playing one of his most entitled and repugnant characters yet.

Sympathies aren't meant to flow David Henninger's (Fiennes, The King's Man) way, or towards his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye). Together, the spiky Londoners abroad bicker like it's a sport — and the only thing fuelling their marriage. Cruelty taints their words: "why am I thinking harpy?", "why am I thinking shrill?" are among his, while she counters "why am I thinking high-functioning alcoholic?". He's a drunken surgeon, she's a bored children's author, and they're venturing past the Atlas Mountains to frolic in debauchery at the village their decadent pal Richard (Matt Smith, Morbius) and his own barbed American spouse Dally (Caleb Landry Jones, Nitram) have turned into a holiday home. Sympathy isn't designed to head that pair's way, either; "we couldn't have done it without our little Moroccan friends," Richard announces to kick off their weekend-long housewarming party. But when the Hennigers arrive late after tragically hitting a local boy, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui, American Odyssey), en route, the mood shifts — but also doesn't.

The wicked turns of phrase that David slings at Jo have nothing on his disdain for the place and people around him, and he doesn't care who hears it. His assessment of the desert vista: "it's very picturesque, I suppose, in a banal sort of way". He drips with the prejudice of privilege, whether offensively spouting Islamophobic remarks or making homophobic comments about his hosts — and he doesn't, nay won't, rein himself in when Richard calls the police, reports the boy's death, pays the appropriate bribes and proclaims that their bacchanal won't otherwise be disturbed. The arrival of Driss' father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater, Queen of the Desert), and his request that David accompanies him home to bury his son, complicates matters, however. While David begrudgingly agrees, insultingly contending that it's a shakedown, Jo helps keep the party going, enjoying time alone to flirt with hedge fund manager Tom (Christopher Abbott, Possessor).

John Michael McDonagh hasn't ever co-helmed a feature with his filmmaker brother Martin, but actors have jumped between the duo's respective works, with Fiennes — who starred in Martin's memorable In Bruges — among the latest. The siblings share something else, too, and not just a knack for assembling impressive casts; they're equally ace at fleshing out the characters inhabited by their dazzling on-screen cohorts via witty and telling dialogue. The Forgiven plays like it's in autopilot, though, but having Fiennes, Chastain, Smith and Jones (who appeared in Martin's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) utter its lines is a gift. Indeed, here it's the attitudes captured while they're speaking, and the behaviours and mannerisms made plain in how they're speaking, that add layer upon layer to this murky affair. That'd ring true even if Driss, Abdellah and the tense journey with the latter to inter the former weren't even in the narrative.

That's one of the issues with The Forgiven: although David and Jo's lives inescapably change due to the accident, it and everything that it sparks almost plays as an aside. The aftermath is given ample attention, more so than the party, but the film frequently feels as David unshakeably does, like it too would rather be immersed in the revelry. Of course, that's much of the point, especially in Jo's parts of the story from there — and Richard, Dally and Tom's, plus everyone else still living it up (including Jack Ryan's Marie-Josée Croze as a French photographer, Operation Mincemeat's Alex Jennings as a British Lord and Old's Abbey Lee as an Australian party girl, complete with a Coles shopping bag holding her belongings). The Forgiven keeps skewering this fact, with McDonagh attempting to do just that every which way he can, but some of his efforts to mirror what's occurring  on-screen through the feature's tone just don't land.

When The Forgiven does hit its marks, it's weighty and knotty, and given depth and heft by Fiennes — and, during David's trip with Abdellah, by the powerful Kanater, plus the charismatic Saïd Taghmaoui (John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum) as the grieving patriarch's offsider and intermediary. It's savvy as a satire, too, albeit obvious, but when the balance tips the better, more compelling, more meaningful way, it's a far more potent picture. Empathising with David still isn't the tale's point, thankfully, and neither is a simplistic life lesson-filled pilgrimage that sees an affluent man learn the error of his oppressive tendencies against the less fortunate. Unsurprisingly, The Forgiven is at its best when it's as complex as its desert-swept cinematography (by The Guard and Calvary's Larry Smith) is gleaming. 

It's not quite right to say that McDonagh brings all of the movie's pieces together in the end — again, it's not exactly accurate to say that he always seems to want to — but Fiennes brings the film home. This is one of his finest performances, which is no small feat given the array of excellent portrayals that dot his resume, including his Oscar-nominated work in Schindler's List and The English Patient, as well as his awards-worthy turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's no minor achievement given the loathsome, boozy, reckless and curmudgeonly figure he's playing, either. The rest of the feature's big names leave an imprint, from the well-cast Chastain playing it sharp but loose, to the appropriately shadowy Smith and catty scene-stealer Jones, but never with the same film-defining impact.

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