“Cruel is the world”, pronounces David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes). A wealthy and snarky Brit, David has the luxury figuratively and literally to say this without any hint of self-reflection. David and American wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) are on a vacation in Morocco, yet it is very perfunctory. Neither look like they want to be there, and certainly not around one another. At this point, the marriage is only on paper and it likely ended a long, indeterminate time ago.
The couple have been invited to a lavish party hosted by socialites Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). On the way, David hits and kills a teen. Call the police? Nah, David and Jo move his body to their car, and make their way to the party. The show must go on. With the influence Richard has on the local police, everything seems to be in order for David and Jo to skirt on by, until the teen’s father (Ismael Kanater) shows up and demands a proper burial along with participation from David.
The Forgiven is the worst kind of movie. Not in the sense of it being technically shoddy and/or acted dismally, but in the sense that it positions itself as having a ton of interesting things to say about privilege, class, gender, first/third world problems, marriage, and the like and by halfway through its runtime, it might hit a lot of viewers that not a whole lot is being said, possibly because the people playing out the story are thinly sketched.
The Forgiven itself is an adaptation of the 2012 novel with the same name authored by Lawrence Osborne. John Michael McDonough handles both the direction and the screenplay. Shot exclusively in Morocco, if anything the locale is one we don’t see too often as an audience which immediately lends a level of freshness. The story follows David and Jo in their respective “journeys”—or lack thereof, and McDonough toggles between both, focusing on the increasingly inhibition-less and opulent party Jo stays at and the customs David finds himself obligated to participate in far away from the posh get away he was expecting to be at. Truth be told, nothing stands out for better or worse, the direction is totally adequate.
The biggest problem that exists in The Forgiven is the general inability to build towards anything of note in its characters and the roles they play in Morocco beyond rich ignorant blowhards or marginalized others who are fully defined as such and nothing else. Almost everyone—particularly those in the majority group—are overly caricatured and seemingly exist only to remind us of their status. That isn’t to say that McDonough and co. are incapable of having an interesting conversation or two characters will engage with, but there is a weird inertia the film resides in for the bulk of its runtime which translates to heavy sluggishness. Contrast this to this year’s Sundown, a similar film thematically in possession of more oomph in a shorter runtime. In the case of The Forgiven, I imagine some of the nuance and character depth the novel carries didn’t translate to the silver screen.
For what it is worth, Fiennes is, as the kids say these days, on one in The Forgiven. Some of his performance and the way David is written here carries dialogue so heavy-handed its more hilarious than shocking, but the actor delivers it all with a deadpan demeanor and committedness. Though his overall arc doesn’t stick the landing and would have resonated more if the movie ended 15 minutes prior, he is doing his best to carry it. Perennial “that guy” Saïd Taghmaoui gives this movie a small serving of actual heart. Regrettably, this is not one of Chastain’s finest moments in her catalog; not so much on her but more so what she is gifted in her character as she mostly starts and ends at the same place.
Maybe The Forgiven’s issues can be excused if viewed as a partly intentional and partly unintentional dark comedy; McDonough and his brother Martin McDonough throw a lot of that into their works and this would be right in step with their filmography. But The Forgiven desperately wants to be a profound analysis piece on the haves versus the have nots and it’s just not.
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