From The Forgiven Out September

Film Review – The Forgiven (2021)

It feels like we’ve been in the cinematic boondocks. Not that August has been short on new releases as such, nor have they lacked big names – think Jordan Peele, Brad Pitt, Idris Elba et al – but as reasons for people to return to cinemas, they haven’t really cut it. And The Forgiven is a sign that we’re stuck in the doldrums for at least another week or two. Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain may be heading the cast under the direction of John Michael McDonagh, but the chances of such heavyweight talent causing queues around the block look, sadly, slim.

On holiday in Morocco, David and Jo Henninger (Fiennes and Chastain) are heading to a friend’s weekend party. As day turns to night, finding their way to the retreat becomes increasingly difficult and the wealthy couple are involved in a tragic accident involving a local teenage boy. Arriving late at the villa and with the party in full flow, they try to cover up the incident with the help of their friend Richard (Matt Smith) and the collusion of the local police. But the boy’s father, a tribal elder, arrives the following day and David agrees to accept what seems like a reasonable enough invitation – to attend the boy’s funeral. It turns out to be laden with meaning and consequences.

McDonagh takes us down a number of roads in what initially looks like a Patricia Highsmith-style drama, but many of them turn out to be dead ends. The opening credits, for instance, hark back to the movies of the 30s and 40s, giving us all the detail we’d expect to see at the end of the film. They create an old fashioned atmosphere and some momentary confusion, but both soon pass and, ultimately, they add little other than novelty value to the film.  More frustrating, however, is the way the main narrative never goes any deeper than the obvious and superficial. It becomes apparent early on that colonial attitudes and the differences between the haves and have-nots, as well as the West and the Arab world, are at the heart of what is essentially a morality play. The “haves” are an arrogant, unpleasant lot and their local servants regard them with equal, but silent, contempt. It’s a familiar scenario, admittedly one with huge potential for thoughtful exploration, but here it remains under-developed, relying instead on well-trodden ground.

Some of the supporting cast suffer a similar fate, with their talents squandered on sketchily drawn characters. Alex Jennings is saddled with playing one of the other guests, a party-loving toff who has little to contribute, while Caleb Landry Jones (so brilliant in this year’s Nitram) is unable to turn what is essentially a caricature into a rounded character. And even the often under-appreciated Christopher Abbott struggles to find something more in his financial whizz-kid than providing the necessary American accent. It falls to Chastain and Fiennes as the prickly married couple to add some real flesh and bone to proceedings and both – Fiennes especially – are more than up to task. But they are well matched by Ismael Kanatar, who plays the father of the dead boy with a quiet dignity that repeatedly hints at something else lurking just beneath the surface.

Their performances aside, The Forgiven labours under the burden of unfulfilled potential, a disappointment considering that it comes from the director who brought us The Guard and the wonderful Calvary. It’s a hit-and-miss affair, one that doesn’t manage to be the sum of its parts with an uneven tone that makes involvement with most of the characters an uphill struggle. By the end, we’re dangerously close to simply giving up on them.

★★


Drama | Cert: 18 | Universal | UK cinemas from 2 September 2022 | Dir. John Michael McDonagh | Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Christopher Abbott, Ismael Kanatar, Caleb Landry Jones, Alex Jennings