Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain star in an adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s novel
Ably adapted by filmmaker John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, The Guard, Ned Kelly) from Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 well-received, bestselling novel, The Forgiven, a broad, anti-colonialist satire that echoes the strongest work of Paul Bowles (Up Above the World, The Sheltering Sky) and Evelyn Waugh (A Handful of Dust), wastes little time in hurling its protagonists, David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes), a wealthy, dissolute Brit, and Jo (Jessica Chastain), a onetime children’s author, American, and David’s significantly younger wife, into the inciting incident, an accident on a darkened, dusty road in Morocco that leaves a boy dead and David and Jo slightly perturbed, that will shape and, in David’s case, determine their individual and collective fates.
From the get-go, David and Jo represent the worst excesses of wealthy, entitled Westerners, colonialists and imperialists by birthright and the color of their (white) skin. They’re monstrous in their vast indifference to the death they caused through a combination of alcohol, carelessness, and speed. (The boy’s intentions, initially presumed innocent, prove less less so as The Forgiven spins towards a seemingly inevitable denouement.) Their reflexive decision not to abandon the body by the side of the road and instead transport it to the villa of David’s longtime friend, Richard Galloway (Matt Smith), causes a series of complications that leave Richard and his American partner, Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones), annoyed at the intrusion of the outside world into their weekend bacchanal, and the arrive of the boy’s father, Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater), and an interpreter, Anouar (Said Taghmaoui), who insist David accompany them back to their village as an act of atonement.
While David initially resists their demands, he eventually reconciles himself to the task, bringing a wad of local cash at Richard’s insistence as compensation for Abdellah losing his son. Like so many Westerners before him, David sees everything as transactional, including the boy’s death and its aftermath, an inconvenience necessary to keep the peace between the vacationing hedonistic Westerners and the Muslim natives who surround them. Reflecting when Osborne sat down to write The Forgiven more than a decade ago, David (and others) see the Moroccans as potential extremists and terrorists (i.e., ISIS). He stubbornly refuses to see Abdellah, Anouar, or any non-Westerner as equals worthy of the same level of respect that he accord a fellow Westerner. It’s more than enough to make the arrogant, hubristic David a deeply unlikable character, a reflection and embodiment of xenophobic, racist ideas.
It’s even harder to root for David’s redemption. Even as glimmers of self-awareness begin to seep into David’s perception of himself, suggesting that someone as supposedly set in their reactionary ways retains the possibility of real change, McDonagh refuses to make it easy on David. Self-awareness might lead to self-knowledge, but for David, it might just be too late. For the broken marriage and the desperately unhappy wife he leaves behind, change for the better might be impossible. Paradoxically, Jo’s seeming inability to change, specifically the decision to embrace the prospect of a fling with another American, Tom Day (Christopher Abbott), after her husband leaves Richard’s villa for Abdellah’s village, might be what saves her, if not spiritually, then physically.
McDonagh peppers the dialogue with blunt, provocative language that often hides more than it reveals about the characters or what McDonagh wants us to feel about the characters. That the Westerners are, to a man and/or woman, reprehensible, shielded by privilege, entitlement, and wealth from the worst consequences of their actions, isn’t a surprise, but over the course of The Forgiven’s languidly paced running time, it starts to feel like McDonagh doesn’t trust his audience on the other side of the screen to make their own judgments about who is and who isn’t “worthwhile.” Instead, the constant emphasis and re-emphasis starts to feel not just repetitive, overlong, and ultimately over-indulgent, but also borderline condescending.
Whatever its faults, though, The Forgiven benefits majorly from a top-flight cast delivering consistently watchable performances. While David undergoes a figurative dark night of the soul, spurring emotional growth and thus giving Fiennes the opportunity to play different shades and qualities of the same character, recent Oscar winner Chastain doesn’t, leaving her with a limited range of choices for the quintessential “Ugly American,” the egotistical, selfish Jo. It’s less a shortcoming of Chastain or her performance than a function of The Forgiven’s primary focus on David and his internal (and external) journey.
The Forgiven opened theatrically on Friday, July 1st.