Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Ismael Kanater, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbey Lee, Mourad Zaoui, Marie-Josée Croze, Alex Jennings, Saïd Taghmaoui, Christopher Abbott
Run Time: 117 mins
The Forgiven is the new film by director John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh behind films such as In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The lesser known brother has also had a very strong career, his first two films with Brendan Gleeson in the leading role, The Guard and Calvary were magnificent. I was less enamoured with War On Everyone, a black comedy with Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård and found it to be very uneven.
Based on a 2012 novel by Lawrence Osborne, Ralph Fiennes plays David Henninger, who is travelling with his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) around Morocco. Their relationship is clearly strained at the start of the film and David is a high-functioning alcoholic. They travel to a friend’s gathering in a castle-like villa and on their way, David hits and kills a young teenager holding a fossil. The Henninger’s turn up late at the villa and after contacting the authorities, the death is ruled as an accident. However, the teenager’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), who shows up on the doorstep with his cronies and David ends up accompanying him back for the son’s burial. The story splits into two and we follow both David’ journey to forgiveness and Jo’s experiences in the villa with its ghastly inhabitants.
The Forgiven sees McDonagh mostly back on form, although it’s not a masterpiece like his first two films were. The film is uneven and after the opening sequence, it takes a good twenty minutes or so to find its stride. At first, I thought McDonagh had made a straight-faced adaptation without his trademark black humour but thankfully, there’s plenty of that to be found once the film finds its feet. McDonagh balances this satisfying mean-spiritedness with sequences of profundity. Like the rest of his filmography, it’s a cathartic experience and the narrative leads you down some unexpected but satisfying roads.
Fiennes is excellent in the lead role, a tired and pitiful individual with a pessimistic outlook on life and McDonagh’s characterisation of him is excellent. He’s given some cracking lines in the script, especially one sequence where he is riding a camel in the desert. Fiennes balances this initial pessimism with an individual who has to do his penance and accept guilt.
Chastain is also excellent as the lumbered wife who’s never allowed to have any fun and at first, the death clearly affects her more than David. Matt Smith essentially plays himself but I didn’t gel with Caleb Landry Jones’ portrayal of his lover, Dally Margolis at all. Though, this is arguably by design McDonagh intentionally tries to portray the rich as despicable and repugnant.
Ismael Kanater is also excellent as Abdellah, consumed by guilt and rage. Kanater conveys his unpredictability convincingly and you’re never quite sure if he’s going to lash out at David or try to understand him. Wonder Woman star Saïd Taghmaoui also impresses as one of his bodyguards, who receives an interesting backstory and provides a window into the poorer communities’ outlook on life.
The score by Lorne Balfe is interesting, who crafts some memorable themes, particularly in the opening sequence. It’s also lusciously shot by Larry Smith, who crafts some arresting vistas.
Overall, The Forgiven is an uneven yet thought-provoking drama. At times, it’s a profound drama infused with black comedy but it can also come across as a slightly oafish hangout film. Ralph Fiennes makes for an excellent lead and McDonagh has ultimately crafted a mostly gripping adaptation of the novel. It’s definitely worth your time.