Fans of John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary, War on Everyone) should find much to love in the writer/director’s fourth feature, The Forgiven (caustic wit, cutting dialogue, stunning cinematography), but it lacks the refined structure, likeable characters and charred heart of his earlier work.
Based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, The Forgiven tells the tale of stuck-up, married couple, David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain), who travel to Morocco to attend a lavish party thrown by wealthy friends, Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). En route, David accidentally runs over a teenage boy, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), and is forced to face repercussions of the event while partying with pals. The police are convinced it was an accident but when the late boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanetar) arrives, David is forced to accompany him to help bury his son and face further consequences.
McDonagh’s latest is, for the most part, engrossing with striking performances from its A-list cast, plus a standout from Ismael Kanetar as Driss’ dad, who quietly conveys emotions via striking expressions with agility. The characters, despite most being unlikeable, are embellished with intriguing, contradictory traits which augment the film’s themes.
Matt Smith’s Richard has a penchant for Islamic art despite his sneering disregard for its customs, while Jo is a children’s author but not the type you’d want minding your own. Fiennes’ David is a “functioning alcoholic” doctor protagonist who initially shows little remorse after running over Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), nonchalantly shunning the accident as an inconvenience, while Matt Smith’s Richard is vapid, drug addled and indifferent to the point of only caring if his party is disrupted by David being a buzzkill.
Moroccan servants exchange frustrated glances, furrowing brows over the heathenism and abhorrent opulence as party guests bop and frolic while devouring champagne, cocaine and each other. As a result, The Forgiven features very few characters to genuinely care about.
The plot is predictable but doesn’t dither much past a cumbersome set-up which introduces contexts and key players prior to their paths colliding, before the pace picks up at the start of the second act and the story starts to engross.
Despite its shortcomings, The Forgiven remains a fascinating watch thanks to fantastic performances, blissful vistas, intriguingly abhorrent characters and an evocative score by Lorne Balfe, with fish-out-of-water themes coalescing nicely with cultural conflicts, similar to those which enriched McDonagh’s earlier work. It’s both a defective masterwork and minor misfire but one that packs a punch when required, and definitely warrants a watch.