The Forgiven (2021) Review

The Forgiven (2021)
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Saïd Taghmaoui, Mourad Zaoui, Ismael Kanater, Caleb Landry Jones, Christopher Abbott

Following the commercial failure of his last film (War on Everyone) released five years ago, John Michael McDonagh – brother of Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and famed director of such hits as The Guard and Calvary – finally returns to filmmaking, adapting Lawrence Osborne’s “The Forgiven” for the big screen. 

When looking at the filmography of the older McDonagh brother, it is very easy to find a stylistic pattern: from The Guard to Calvary to War On Everyone to The Forgiven; comedy to drama to comedy to drama. That’s not to unfairly tag his dramatic work as lacking anything, however, as McDonagh laces even his more serious films with plenty of laughs. The Forgiven is no different.

The Forgiven follows David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, respectively), a self-aggrandising husband and wife spending the weekend at their friend’s mansion in Morocco. After striking down a local boy with their car, the movie follows the effect the incident has on both the visitors and the locals. Things get more complicated when the father of the boy wishes for David to come with him to bury his son.

Although The Forgiven has been marketed as a serious and almost dry adaptation, McDonagh uses this plot for some truly biting satire of the upper class. In spite of the severity of the situation and the fact that someone has lost their life, all of the partygoers, including David and Jo, simply do not care. If anything, they feel inconvenienced by it, putting on the façade that they care in front of both the police and the father of the boy.

Moreover, the plot develops into a case of those who indulge in their lavish lifestyle and those who choose to look at the severity of what has happened. The message is loud and clear from McDonagh, his work allowing for the change in one character to show the despicable behaviour of another. It is a fascinating character study, one which essentially sums up the whole film.

In many ways, The Forgiven is a very simple movie and one that McDonagh is very clearly confident in what it is and what he wants it to be, never convoluting the story or adding anything that feels untrue to the book. It is in this case, sadly, that the film will definitely divide audiences and not be for everyone, especially given the misleading marketing. 

Those who do like it will most certainly appreciate the screenplay and McDonagh’s gentle yet firm direction. He creates a wonderful sense of style throughout the film, shooting wide open spaces to represent the hollow nature of upper class indulgence, all the while giving us an insight into the beautiful landscapes of one of the world’s most naturally beautiful countries.

Surprisingly, given the talent involved, the biggest issue with The Forgiven is its use of actors. Most of the performances are very good and, despite the film being filled with dialogue, most of the actors say much more with their bodies than their voices. Fiennes is by far the stand out, his interactions with the boy’s father Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui of La Haine and Wonder Woman fame) are truly captivating, and the clear conflict between the two creates some excellent tension. Fiennes’ friendship, which develops with Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), is also very sweet and is possibly the best part of the whole film. The issue is that big names such as Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones are barely used.

Caleb Landry Jones is the biggest victim of this, his part reduced to bitchy comments here and there, the actor barely getting the chance to delve into his deep repertoire of skills. Considering how excellent an actor he is – 2021’s Nitram proving such – it is a shame he is reduced to such a bare role. It could be argued that this illustrates just how little depth there is to the people the film is criticising, but considering the movie shows this in much better ways with Jessica Chastain’s character in particular, it feels as if this is not the case.

Although The Forgiven has its shortcomings, in total it is a terrific and thought-provoking adaptation, and a true return to form from John Michael McDonagh. It certainly won’t be a film for everyone, but it is a deep dive into the mind of the upper class, and a fascinating character study within that.

Score: 17/24

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