The Forgiven

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Lush and lovely and slightly empty, The Forgiven is the clockwork toy that fails to march. And it all looks so promising to start with. The opening moments alone really get the hopes up – that saturated colour red of the scrolling credits seems to be offering a vast 1960s-style epic à la Lawrence of Arabia, the North African settings suggest maybe Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky and the presence of Ralph Fiennes hints at another The English Patient maybe.

Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play the bickering married couple who knock down and kill a young Moroccan fossil seller one night while en route to a party out at some huge swish villa in the middle of the Sahara. It looks like we’re set up for something momentous. A stranger killing an Arab – that’s Camus’s L’Étranger, right?

He’s a high functioning alcoholic, she’s a class bitch. Neither of them is sure whether it’s his friends or her friends who they’re heading out to see, but it’ll be the party of a lifetime, in a life full of parties of a lifetime.

Or it would have been. A dead local rather puts a damper on things. And that’s how they react to it – as a mild inconvenience, even though David (Fiennes) was driving drunk and was too busy arguing with his wife to mind the road. The other partygoers include the hosts, couple Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), the former very fey and gay in a Noel Coward way, the latter a loutish American bore; Tom (Christopher Abbott), something in finance; Cody (Abby Lee), an It girl party monster; Isabelle (Marie-Josée Croze), a celebrity photographer; and an English noble (Alex Jennings), Lord Swanthorpe of Hedonism.

They are, to a person, a gaggle of sensationally up-themselves, over-entitled pricks and it looks for a while like writer/director John Michael McDonagh is going to give us another bone-dry comedy populated with monsters, like he did with War on Everyone.

David and Jo right in the desert
David and Jo in the desert at night

Instead, the film takes a swerve more into the territory of his most celebrated film, Calvary, after the dead boy’s Berber father arrives at the hard-partying villa and invites David to travel with him back to his village, for reasons that may or may not have something to do with payback.

From here, a film of two halves. Fiennes and Ismael Kanater (as the dead boy’s dignified, beturbanned father), with Saïd Taghmaoui acting as a go-between translator. Back at the villa, the party continues, booze, cocaine, swimming, fireworks, sex, while the Moroccan servants, cooks and drivers look on with barely veiled contempt.

Forgiveness is the name of the game, the title does not lie, or more to the point expiation, or epiphany, or atonement, with drunken, careless, selfish David the focus of the lesson.

You might wonder why Jessica Chastain is in this. You might in fact wonder what any of those big names is doing here. There’s even Fiona Shaughnessy down the cast list, another superb actor who gets to utter maybe one or two lines before the camera moves on.

It sounds fantastic, thanks to Lorne Balfe’s sinuous Arab-pastiche soundtrack deliberately evoking epics of yore. And it looks fantastic, those big orange Saharan landscapes and the Atlas mountains gorgeously shot by DP Larry Smith. The acting is exquisite. Chastain drips with “fuck you” languour, Fiennes is a ball of impotent rage, Smith, Abbott, Landry Jones, the whole lot of them – they are good at this and they all deliver McDonagh’s drily witty lines (adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s novel) like the smart, rude people they’re meant to be.

It’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut, though, all these people, all this party, all those landscapes. The brutish colonial mindset is alive and well in these people, who don’t understand the value of a life unless it’s theirs. But then we knew all that in the first ten minutes. Which puts a lot of weight on the “when” and the “if” of David’s damascene conversion.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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