Still of Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes in The Forgiven

Film Review: The Forgiven

Film Reviews

The Forgiven
Director: John Michael McDonagh

House of Un-American Activities Productions and Brookstreet Pictures
In Theaters 07.01

It’s been over 25 years since Ralph Fiennes went Oscar hunting in the desert with The English Patient, and It was inevitable that Fiennes would return one day, looking for gold. The Forgiven, the new film from Writer-Director John Michael McDonagh, packs double the prestigious redhead cred by adding Jessica Chastain, though this time, Fiennes has opted to drive instead of flying.

The Forgiven begins with a wealthy London couple, David and Jo Henninger (Fiennes and Chastain, respectively) speeding through the Moroccan desert at night to get to an extravagant weekend party. David has been drinking, and the couple has been fighting. When a local teen, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), steps right out in front of their speeding car, David hits and kills the boy. The couple has little choice but to arrive late to the party, bringing with them a dead body, the bakery having already sold the last chocolate babka. 

David attempts to cover up the unfortunate incident with the help of the local police and the party’s frivolous hosts, Dickie (Matt Smith, Doctor Who) and his boyfriend, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones, Finch, Nitram), who aren’t about to let a little thing like vehicular manslaughter get in the way of a good shindig. When the dead boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kana, 24, The Pilgrims), shows up seeking justice, things get a little tense. Before the weekend is over, more than one life will never be the same. 

Adapted from the acclaimed 2012 novel by Lawrence Osbourne, The Forgiven is both a darkly satirical morality play and a social commentary, one which aims to explore the divide between Western and Middle Eastern cultures. The elitist European and American partygoers see the locals as hired help at best, potential ISIS members at worst and hardly human at all. By the same token, the Moroccan characters derisively look upon the infidels in their midsts as stupid and decadent westerners, defiling themselves with sin. There’s enough judgment and perceived superiority on both sides to make it all feel remarkably like Utah, and there’s not a likable character in the bunch—they are interesting, however, and the more the story progresses, the more The Forgiven begins to cast a spell on its audience. 

Fiennes is riveting as the callous and selfish “high-functioning alcoholic” who is gradually forced to confront the possibility that he might have actually done something wrong. Chastain, in her first major role since winning an Academy Award for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, commands the screen as always, and it’s fascinating to watch the initially mortified Jo become more and more detached from the reality of the situation, giving in to the need to escape into the festivities and her own desires, just as the odious David is forced to confront things head-on. Smith is wickedly smarmy as Dickie, giving us a sense that he has both worldly wisdom and conscience, which he can turn on and off as he sees fit. The ever-reliable Saïd Taghmaoui (Three Kings, Wonder Woman) is outstanding as David’s driver. Overall, it’s Fiennes and Kana who make the movie soar, and every moment they share on screen left me transfixed. The Forgiven has a lot to say about the numbing effect that our choices have on how we view ourselves and others, how it colors our ideas of what is acceptable under the right circumstances.

The Forgiven is an engaging, visually sumptuous film that is filled with unforgettable performances and an apparently shallow outlook that deceptively hides layers of intriguing ideas for audiences to peel away. If you’re looking for a wry, provocative movie that will give you something to talk about after you’ve left the theater, you won’t forgive yourself if you miss this one. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more film reviews by Patrick Gibbs:
Film Review: The Phantom of the Open
Film Review: Elvis