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Review: The Forgiven

July 1, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The latest film from director John Michael McDonagh (older brother of Martin McDonagh), The Forgiven is a talky moral drama that offers a bleak as hell look at rich, bourgeois society folks colliding with the locals in North Africa.

Adapting the 2012 novel of the same name by Lawrence Osborne for the screen, McDonagh’s film follows David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes), an English professional who is vacationing in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco with his American wife Jo (Jessica Chastain).

They are staying at the home of a gay couple (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones), who purchased a lavish property in the country, and have invited their wealthy friends for a weekend getaway. But on their way to the dinner party, David is driving drunk and accidentally hits and kills a Moroccan boy who is selling fossils by the side of the road.

Despite David’s initial attempts to cover it up, the hosts inform the police of the body, forcing David to face the boy’s family, while Jo gets pushed closer to a fellow American, Tom Day (Christopher Abbott), who is also vacationing at the property. McDonagh’s script smartly keeps us questioning whether or not David is actively racist, or merely a callous and arrogant person whose own privilege has allowed him to see himself as above the law, having never really had to face real repercussions for his actions.

Fiennes does a good job of portraying this arc over the course of The Forgiven, subtly underplaying the moments when remorse quietly registers on his character’s face, and his performance is easily the best thing about the film. There is also some strong chemistry between Chastain and Abbott, who delivers a prominent supporting role. It can be trying to be in the company of these vain, narcissistic characters for two hours, but their shallowness is also the point.

The film is held back somewhat by its overall execution, with the storytelling feeling a little too dry in places. McDonagh struggles to build much genuine tension at times, which can make the pacing feel somewhat slack, especially through the more predictable story turns. But, even if we can predict some of the outcomes, the dialogue exchanges that bring the characters to these conclusions are appropriately thorny and often interesting. The film is at times heavy-handed in its messaging, but still has some stirring moments as characters recognize the shared humanity between them.

If The Forgiven at times struggles to fully live up to its own potential, the idea of a mature drama for adults that largely eschews action for dialogue exchanges that allow the characters to grapple with the morality of their choices is somewhat refreshing, and the performances and writing are decent enough to make it worth a look.

The Forgiven is now playing in limited release at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, as well as Vancouver and Ottawa, and will be expanding to more cities in the coming weeks. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

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