The Forgiven

The Forgiven, 2022, 3 stars

Just deserts

The Forgiven forges a Moroccan morality tale

Exclusive to MeierMovies, July 9, 2022

Similar to Vegas, what happens in Morocco apparently stays in Morocco. But that should be no consolation to David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain), an unhappily married couple who, while attending a pretentious house party in the High Atlas Mountains of this North African nation, experience a terrible accident and are forced to confront its repercussions.

Their marriage is in the desert, both geographically and metaphorically, and the party – packed with vacuous celebrants and temptations to cheat on one’s spouse – is not exactly the therapy the Henningers need. He’s a doctor whose practice is in peril after a missed diagnosis that will lead to a patient’s death, and she’s a children’s book author who dislikes children and hasn’t written anything in eight years. She’s been forgotten by today’s “feckless” youth, she complains. They are primed for a moral reckoning.

They get one when, on the long drive to the party, their car strikes a boy in the road. “I hate to say it, but the kid is a nobody,” David says, seemingly dismissing his responsibility. “He’s from a village far away, and nobody knows who he is.”

Fiennes seems to be genetically programmed to play these types of bitingly nasty narcissists who might or might not experience a redemptive character arc. And he portrays this one with aplomb – and a plum, as he and the other party guests are constantly eating Moroccan delicacies. Cinematographer Larry Smith’s camera, at least briefly, even turns The Forgiven into a food film, before things take a darker turn. But even when events turn grim, the grieved individuals bond over fruit, which could carry a religious metaphor if you’re prone to overanalyze.

Chastain is one of her generation’s finest actresses but, unlike Fiennes, sometimes seems a bit lost here, appearing – except for her smoldering sexuality – to phone it in until the climax. Little chemistry exists between the lead actors, leading this critic to wonder how Rachel Weisz, for instance, might have handled the role. (The two have been in three films together and are nearer in age than Fiennes and Chastain.)

But perhaps a sense of disengagement and vapidity is what was intended for Chastain. Indeed, even Jo herself seems to recognize her emptiness, remarking to a man she meets at the party (Christopher Abbott), “It’s good to know that there are other useless people in this world besides me.”

The meat of writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s drama is not the relationship between David and Jo but the one between David and those related to the accident victim. That part of the film also produces the two most interesting performances, from Moroccan actors Ismael Kanater and Saïd Taghmaoui. Conversely, Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones, who play the party hosts, fall mostly flat, as do most of the scenes at the soiree, as McDonagh seems unable to successfully juxtapose the party’s privileged frivolity with the seriousness of the situation in which David finds himself. McDonagh, who based his script on the novel by Lawrence Osborne, brilliantly tackled tough issues in Calvary (2014) but can never get the tonal balance quite right in this one.

Despite that shortcoming and the fact that the movie is just plain unpleasant for much of its two hours, The Forgiven – unlike its main characters – never completely loses it way. Indeed, the suspense, moral underpinnings and cultural commentary keep the story on an interesting path.

Most importantly, in the back of my mind for most of the film (as should always be the case in such pictures) was the unrelenting refrain: “What would I do in this situation?” The fact that I have no clear answer is the best compliment I can pay McDonagh’s movie.

© 2022 MeierMovies, LLC

As of July 1, The Forgiven is in limited theatrical release in the United States and Canada and is scheduled for VOD release on July 15. For more information on this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia