The Forgiven (2022) Review!!

Synopsis – Speeding through the Moroccan desert to attend an old friend’s lavish weekend party, wealthy Londoners David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) are involved in a tragic accident with a local teenage boy. Arriving late at the grand villa with the debauched party raging, the couple attempts to cover up the incident with the collusion of the local police. But when the boy’s father arrives seeking justice, the stage is set for a tension-filled culture clash in which David and Jo must come to terms with their fateful act and its shattering consequences.

My Take – Films about white privilege and the conflict between the West and the Arab world has been a hot topic for some time now. Joining the growing list is this latest moral/character study from writer-director John Michael McDonagh (older brother of In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Oscar winning filmmaker Martin McDonagh), who has delivered a couple of excellent films in the past in the form of Calvary (2014) and The Guard (2011), and has never been one to shy away from controversial characters or topics.

Based on 2012 novel from British writer Lawrence Osborne, here, director McDonagh makes a timely piece that takes a frank look at race and privilege. By focusing on a weekend of debauchery, he continues his fascination with the all-too-human dark nature of some folks, who are not concerned with any morals and display some extremely questionable behavior. Making the whole experience as intriguing as it is off-putting.

Under the control of a less capable filmmaker, this efficiently nasty drama could have very easily been a boring film. But it is a testament to director McDonagh’s talent that it’s not.

Yes, it lacks the fire and confrontation behind its commentaries, and contains a familiar ending, but being richly designed and exotically executed, this one is an unusually involving film that holds interest even on the rare occasions when it challenges credibility. Most surprisingly, you may actually find yourself caring for these people more than they care for themselves.

The story follows a married London couple, David (Ralph Fiennes), a renowned British surgeon who has lost interest in his profession, become disillusioned and cynical, and turned into an alcoholic snob, and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain), a bored has-been American Children’s novelist who hasn’t written anything in years, who arrive in Tangier, in order to set off to an arduous journey to a villa located in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains where their rich and degenerate old school friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his debauched lover, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), are hosting a party for a select group of well-heeled friends.

But things don’t go as planned as on their way, driving too fast during a distracting disagreement, David hits and kill a local Muslim boy on seemingly-deserted road in the desert. David brings the body to Richard’s house, much to the latter’s displeasure. No matter, Richard opines, the police will come, some money may change hands, and it will all be swept under the carpet.

That seems to be the way things are going until the boy’s father, Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater), and his English speaking associate, Anouar (Said Taghmaoui), arrive to collect the body, demanding that David return with him to his village to attend the burial. Naturally, David objects, but as it is the local custom, he heeds and goes along. Leaving Jo behind, who unburdened of the presence of her husband, begins an affair with fellow American Tom Day (Christopher Abbott) as an antidote to worrying about David and remembering the culpability she shares with him.

From that point on, the film begins to follow two separate story lines, one, David’s journey into the desert, and second, the party that his friends and wife enjoy while he’s away, satirizing them as bigoted and alcohol-fueled. Here, writer-director McDonagh examines the differences between two cultural abysses, the privileged and indulgent world littered with disdain and garbage by westerners, and the primitive customs of people without hope. The white characters in the film are people of such means that their lives, including their jaunting through the Sahara to attend an overnight party with seemingly little motivation, appear vaguely dreamlike.

The film doesn’t soften the blow of characters being detestable invaders who show no respect for Muslim locals, and the film goes out of its way for Jo and David to presume Moroccans as possible ISIS terrorists or for other cocaine-huffing socialites to belittle underprivileged masses currently working as servers at Richard’s elegant soirée. By focusing on both perspectives, writer-director McDonagh is able to effectively juxtapose the carefree, gratuitous celebration thrown by the film’s rich elites with the difficult emotional and physical realities of what life can be like for Morocco’s impoverished citizens.

However, it’s David’s trip with the boy’s father that holds the real potential in taking this film to the next level. Especially with David learning that the dead boy’s father is far from the country rube he was expecting to buy off with an envelope of cash. But while the filmmaker’s observations are often precise and revealing in equal measure, and feel like a summarized version of a longer, more complex narrative that don’t amount to much in the end. Though handled in a powerful, credible manner, David’s transformation from an uncaring rich elite to a man sympathetic to those he previously considered beneath him is, unfortunately, one that we have seen a thousand times before.

Yes, the film does go out of its way to embrace the perspective of its Moroccan characters and it’s David’s journey that ultimately emerges as the heart and soul of the film, but the fact that his transformation feels expected, something that robs the film much of its dramatic weight. Comparatively, the incident’s ramifications for Abdellah are much more interesting. A development which tragically manifests in the climax, which comes closer to embodying the futility of two irreconcilable cultures attempting to understand each other.

Performance wise, Jessica Chastain continues to uphold her reputation as an actor with a firm hand on the intensity dial. Effectively mixing her highs and lows with panache. But it is the ever dependable Ralph Fiennes whose performance is the main catch of the film. Conveying an arc that travels from drunken callousness to fright and guilt, he is fantastic. Ismael Kanater as the boy’s father, shows excellent range by hiding his rage and anguish in a way that unnerves a confused David.

Matt Smith is delightfully, hilariously droll and nonchalant. Caleb Landry Jones and Christopher Abbott greatly play the archetypes set out for them. In smaller roles, Said Taghmaoui, Mourad Zaoui, Abbey Lee, Marie-Josée Croze and Alex Jennings are also good. On the whole, ‘The Forgiven’ is a familiar yet tense culture clash drama with a well-crafted narrative.

Directed – 

Starring – Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith

Rated – R

Run Time – 117 minutes

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