Dir: John Michael McDonagh. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Ismael Kanater, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbey Lee. 18, 117 minutes.
At what point does art’s stubborn (though not invalid) fascination with the inner mechanics of terrible people cross a line, and begin demanding we show mercy towards the truly irredeemable among us? It’s the problem that lies at the heart of The Forgiven, a somewhat on-the-nose title for a film that lines up for us a miniature troupe of the wealthy and perversely bigoted at leisure in Morocco, who feel free to say horrific things about the local population because they’re shielded behind the walls of a literal castle. The only Moroccans they speak to on a daily basis are the ones whose wages they pay. We watch these one-percenters scurry about like termites, spewing their awfulness, before one of their number undergoes a moral awakening and we’re suddenly asked to spare them a little sympathy.
The film, adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel, is the fourth feature from writer/director John Michael McDonagh, who possesses the same keen eye for incisive dialogue as his younger brother Martin. Between The Guard (2011), Calvary (2014), and War on Everyone (2016), it’s clear that McDonagh can do mockery and pathos in equal measure. Here, though, those two extremes represent entirely separate narratives that never overlap in any meaningful way.
The bitter humour of The Forgiven rears its head immediately. We meet a married couple, David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain), as they sit in the bar of a Tangier hotel, turning their noses up at the other tourists. They stare at a group of white bros in fezzes who are drunkenly clinking glasses. David calls them “continental wildebeest”. Apparently he thinks himself different because his perpetual disdain is couched in more elegant language. When Jo calls him a “highly functioning alcoholic”, he spits back: “I always thought the highly functioning part should cancel out the alcoholic part.” The irony is that, a few scenes later, his “highly functioning alcoholism” results in vehicular manslaughter – a Moroccan boy, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), steps out into the road and is hit by his jeep.
The couple arrive, with a body in the back seat, at their ultimate destination: the dwelling of Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his current boyfriend Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones). Richard assures them that all will be well: “I know the officer in charge, it will be a formality.” They knock back a few glasses of wine and carry on with the festivities. That is, until the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater’s Abdellah Taheri) appears, demanding that David return home with him to make amends.
While Jo carries on in her debauchery, David heads off with Abdellah, taking with him an envelope of cash that he hopes will buy the family’s silence. Saïd Taghmaoui’s Anouar acts as translator and guide. Though the actor unearths as much nuance as he can, his character’s inevitable purpose is to turn to David in the final act and – with tear-flecked eyes – call him an “honourable” man.
It’s obvious why this cast were attracted to The Forgiven – an actor’s most thrilling challenge is to find the brokenness hidden in between the cruellest of words. Fiennes and Chastain have always excelled in this area, as they do here. But the ugliness quickly wears thin. The Moroccan characters who work for Richard are allowed their disgust, but little more. We’re robbed of any real sense of resolution, in karmic or narrative terms. In truth, what good is there in critiquing privilege if the only goal is personal absolution?
‘The Forgiven’ is in cinemas from 2 September