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Film Review: The Forgiven

Director:    John Michael McDonagh

Cast:      Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Ismael Kanater, Saïd Taghmaoui, Christopher Abbott, Caleb Landry Jones, Mourad Zaoui, Marie-Josée Croze, Alex Jennings, David McSavage, Abbey Lee

Rating:       MA

Running Time:      117

Australian Distributor:        Madman Films


The Forgiven is the new film by director John Michael McDonagh. It is set in the vast and beautiful Moroccan desert.  An English doctor named David Henninger (played by Ralph Fiennes) is travelling to Morocco with his American wife Jo (Jessica Chastain). The pair’s marriage is rocky, judging by the many harsh put-downs the two inflict on each other in the opening scenes. We learn David is a drunk and a racist; Jo a former children’s book author, resentment now her main occupation.

The unhappily married couple are travelling to a lavish, weekend-long soiree hosted by an ex-pat gay couple (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones) who maintain an elaborate villa in the Atlas Mountains. As the Henningers are en route, David speeds through a junction and runs over and kills a teenage boy named Driss. The Henningers load the boy’s body into their car and travel on to the party, confessing immediately to the incident when they arrive.   

Surprisingly, the accident doesn’t detract from the fun of the party. After contacting the police, the hosts decide to carry on. Aside from the Henningers, the guests include a roll-call of wealthy Western get-abouts, all with few redeeming features between them. The Henningers, in other words, are with their tribe. And although David is upset about the manslaughter, the other guests all but ignore the trouble; oblique references to the boy’s death are distributed like talk of conflict in distant lands. The police soon arrive and quietly clear David of any culpability in the accident.  The party rolls on with guests including Australian Abbey Lee as a party girl who jumps in the pool in her sequined dress; Marie-Josee Croze as a sanctimonious French photographer who makes broad generalisations about Americans; and Alex Jennings as a British Lord who arrives late with a posse of pretty, much-younger women in tow.

A complication arises, however, when Driss’ father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) arrives to collect his son’s body. Abdellah wants David to accompany him back to his village to help bury the body. David, fearing some sort of revenge, refuses to go, but is eventually talked around and sets out with the old man. Jo uses David’s absence to spend much of her time frolicking with a young American guest.

The Forgiven aims high as it positions itself as having many interesting things to say about privilege, class, gender, first/third world problems, marriage, and the like and, by halfway through its runtime, it becomes apparent that not a whole lot is being said, possibly because the people playing out the story are thinly sketched.

Where the film finds greater success is in its performances. Ralph Fiennes, especially when sharing the screen with Ismael Kanater, is excellent. He brings to life the crude cruelty of a man disillusioned by the world, while washing away this hard, protective exterior to show genuine emotion by the time he has to apologise to Abdellah. This is a man desperate to view himself as good, only for this self-image to shatter.     

Fiennes captures considerable grace and reticence as David stares down the barrel of forgiveness and regret. Kanater speaks only a few lines in English, but he has a presence that casts a long shadow. Their tense relationship, few scenes actually speaking to each other, helps Kanater bring considerable depth of feeling to the table.  As a big fan of Jessica Chastain, I must say, regrettably, that this is not one of her finest moments; not so much on her but more on what she is gifted in her character as she mostly starts and ends at the same place.

There is some nice technique displayed with lavish cinematography that captures the dramatic landscapes of the Moroccan desert. But it’s all just window-dressing to a plot that never finds its way out of the desert.

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