Forgiven, The (United Kingdom, 2021)

June 30, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Forgiven, The Poster

In many ways, The Forgiven feels like a CliffsNotes version of a longer, more complex narrative. But, even considering that numerous subplots might benefit from a mini-series approach to the material, the transformation of the central character is handled in a powerful, credible manner. John Michael McDonagh’s screenplay, which he based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, is as much about atonement and forgiveness as it is a critique of Colonial attitudes of racism and white supremacy that are deeply entrenched in some of the richest, most elite factions of Western society.

The Forgiven focuses on the events surrounding a group of strangers in a strange land, where a clique of upper-class snobs have gathered to do what upper-class snobs often do when no one is looking over their shoulders (hint: it involves booze, sex, and snorting certain controlled substances). The location is a villa in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains where Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his conventions-defying partner, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), are hosting a party. Whiteness appears to be a qualification for admittance (except for those working as servants). David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) and his wife, Jo (Jessica Chastain), fit the bill. David is a “functioning alcoholic,” which perhaps explains why he doesn’t see the boy who strays too close to the side of a seemingly-deserted road in the desert. Or it could be that he’s arguing with Jo. Or that he thinks he may have just missed his turn. Regardless, speeding car meets young male body and there’s no question what the result is going to be.

David brings the body to Richard’s house, much to the latter’s displeasure. No matter, Richard opines, the police will come, some money may change hands, and it will all be swept under the carpet. That seems to be the way things are going until the boy’s father, Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater), and an interpreter, Anouar (Said Taghmaoui), arrive to collect the body. They “request” that David accompany them back to Tafal’aalt to participate in the burial (as a mark of respect incumbent upon a person of honor). More annoyed than sorrowful but nevertheless wanting to put the event behind him, David agrees (and brings 1000 Euros with him as a blood money payout). But things don’t go as expected and David’s conscience begins to burrow to the surface after years of lying buried. Meanwhile, back at the villa, things proceed as normal, with flowing liquor and bed-swapping. Jo, unburdened of the presence of her husband, begins an affair with fellow American Tom Day (Christopher Abbott) as an antidote to worrying about David and remembering the culpability she shares with him.

With a lead character as unlikable as David, the onus of making a believable transformation into a sympathetic figure falls equally on the writer/director and actor Ralph Fiennes. For the ending to work, David has to traverse the emotional landscape from self-centered, entitled pig to someone who recognizes his guilt and seeks absolution. Fortunately, Fiennes has the skill to convey the shift in David’s personality as it occurs – not a bolt from the blue but a gradual recognition of what he did. The change to David is made all the more profound by contrasting him with his wife and friend, who are essentially the same at the end as at the beginning. Protected by a bubble of entitlement, they have no need to modify the trajectories of their lives.

While the plum acting role belongs to Fiennes, many of the other high-profile cast members – Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Christopher Abbott – don’t have a lot to do. After Fiennes, the strongest performances belong to Ismale Kanater (who does a lot of his acting with his eyes and face) and Said Taghmaoui, in large part because, despite limited exposure, their characters have the most layers. Most of the characters in The Forgiven are intentionally one-dimensional. Kanther’s angry, grieving father and his associate have depth.

Despite featuring a high-profile cast, The Forgiven is being given a relatively small distribution footprint (as is the norm for films not featuring explosions and/or superheroes). That shouldn’t dissuade anyone interested in this kind of serious, compelling drama since, in the current climate, today’s theatrical release is tomorrow’s streaming opportunity. Once The Forgiven is readily available, its two hours of well-tuned, literate drama are worth exploring.

Forgiven, The (United Kingdom, 2021)

Director: John Michael McDonagh
Home Release Date: 2022-09-13
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh, based on the novel by Lawrence Osborne
Cinematography: Larry Smith
Music: Lorne Balfe
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Home Release Date: 2022-09-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1