The unexpected consequences and repercussions of a terrible accident in the Moroccan desert are explored in The Forgiven, John Michael McDonagh’s adaptation of Lawrence Osbourne’s 2012 novel, starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain.
Desert Penanceby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient, and Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye) travel from London to Morocco for an extravagant weekend party thrown by Jo’s friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith, Last Night in Soho).
Lost in the desert, they tragically hit and kill a young Muslim boy in the road. The boy’s father (Ismael Kanater, Queen of the Desert) arrives to take his body and demands that David, as the driver, returns home with him for the burial.
The Forgiven plays out quite differently from the premise you are presented with; it could easily be a tense nerve-shredding thriller but that is not writer/director McDonagh’s film.
While there is an element of tension in the aftermath of the accident, and the initial effect it has on the party once David and Jo arrive, the main catalyst for it is Kanater’s searing performance as the bereaved Father. His unflinching cold stare at David harbours his anger and devastation combined with quiet menacing threat.
The, perhaps surprising, relative lack of suspense is in part due to unexpected character reactions which divert the audience’s expectation; rather than being wracked with worry when her husband leaves the party on this dangerous journey, Jo is occupied flirting with the other American party guest Tom (Christopher Abbott, Black Bear).
The Henninger’s difficult marriage is on display from the outset as they bicker and argue throughout the journey, while David’s alcoholism is a major factor in their relationship and the accident and his complicated feeling of responsibility.
Presenting the audience with largely unlikable characters could, in some way, be seen as lowering the stakes of David’s expedition with the dead boy’s father but it nevertheless creates an interesting representation of morals throughout.
In addition to the father, the other Muslim characters are central to the story’s morality; Richard’s servants Hamid (Mourad Zaoui, The Night Manager) and Nawfal (Anas El Baz, Queen of the Desert), who understand the father’s actions and motives and the father’s ‘right-hand man’ Anouar (Said Taghmaoui, Wonder Woman), who David almost forms a bond with on the redemption journey.
As one would expect, Fiennes and Chastain, collaborating for the first time since 2011’s Coriolanus, make a compelling central couple, despite spending a significant chunk of the film apart. Fiennes’ finds several layers in his moody character while Chastain, playing somewhat against type as the unhappy wife, is hugely watchable as the unpredictable Jo.
Smith is effective as the charismatic party host and has nice chemistry with Chastain creating a believable long-term friendship. However, as his partner Dally, the excellent Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out) is given little to do other than be flamboyant.
The Forgiven is an intriguing and, often unexpected, character study examining responsibility and the concept of forgiveness.
The Forgiven premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It was released on 2 September 2022 in the UK and is still on general release.