The Forgiven (2021) – Review


The Forgiven came into film festivals last year and is both written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, and based on a book by Lawrence Osbourne. I haven’t read the book, so this film will be judged alone. I also therefore have no idea what changes and omissions happened when adapting the book into a film.

The film itself has been released to rather limited screens. I only managed to find a screening for this film because I happened to spot it at the Picturehouse Cinema in FACT Liverpool. This all might be down to the fact that this film wasn’t expected to make a large profit, and despite the star studded cast of Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, and Matt Smith, the film has a few things going against it. Mainly that the film festival crowds gave it a very lukewarm reaction, and it doesn’t have a very high score on Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic either, floating around the 60% mark. Which baffles me because in short, I really liked this film!

The movie takes place entirely in Morocco and centres around a couple known as the Henninger, private doctor David (Ralph Fiennes), and his wife, failed children’s author Jo (Jessica Chastain); who are incredibly dysfunctional. They’re spending their holidays at a long weekend party with David’s old school friend, Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his eccentric boyfriend Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones). Whilst driving at night slightly drunk, he accidentally runs over a boy selling fossils to tourists. They take the body to the estate where the local officials are contacted, only for the boy’s father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) to demand that David accompany him to his village to pay respects, and to repay him for the accident. David thinks that he will have to begrudgingly give him a thousand euros, so he agrees, but as he comes to learn more of the troubled way of life in the middle of the desert, he begins to feel guilt and fear.

The film really keeps you guessing about what Abdellah’s intentions truly are. This film has lots of incredible performances including Jessica Chastain and Matt Smith, but the standout performances are definitely Ralph Fiennes and Ismael Kanater. I would go as far to say that Ismael Kanater should get some award nominations for best supporting actor. He does an excellent job playing both a potentially antagonistic force to David, as well as a grieving father. He can really deliver raw emotion!

Ralph Fiennes also delivers a similarly excellent performance. I think if his performance had been underplayed that his character arc would not be believable.

The plot itself also does a very good job telling its story. It really is a tale of two stories; David travelling to the Moroccan village as well as the party setting which is run and attended by (for a lack of a better words) the biggest arseholes on the planet. One of the things that I don’t like about films like this is that they will take these rich drunk, drug fuelled, morons hiding behind intellectualism and pretend that they are eccentric renaissance people. When in reality, if you actually met them at a party you would have to hold back every urge to slap them in the face.

This film does an excellent job dressing down the phoney-ness of what they cling to. If there’s one thing that this film is really about, it’s privilege, and how people laude that. They are fundamentally incredibly racist, but they don’t see that in themselves- they use their intellectualism to justify their racist beliefs, to such an extent that they will say in full view of the Moroccan natives that work for them ‘you people’ or ‘those people’. Normally I can’t stand films with tons of characters like this, but the film does an excellent job showing how bad they are and contrasts it with the other plot that is going on, which really takes the edge off it. For example, Matt Smith does an excellent job playing this role. He really channels a similar character to what he played in ‘Last Night in Soho’ although this time he’s a lot squirmier.

Likewise, it does a good job of giving Jessica Chastain something to do. It’s very clear from the outset of the film that David and Jo’s marriage is very rocky at this point, and she now wants to use this opportunity (while being encouraged by Richard and Dally) to have an affair with one of their handsome American friends as a way to recapture her youth. Again, they are very good at using their intellect to justify their awful actions. If anything, the Moroccan cast delivers the best performances in the film in my opinion. The film does really challenge a lot of people’s opinions.

The thing that really surprised me about the film was that it opens and closes quite differently to most modern cinema. It goes for a more ‘classic’ feel, which you might have experienced if you’ve seen films like ‘Ben-Hur’, mainly because there’s complete credits at the start of the film and no closing credits. It also ends on a still that just says ‘The End’. I’m not sure how that’s going to play with modern audiences but I thought that it was very interesting. I am personally not someone who hates the idea of closing credits, since I think that if you do them right, they can look great- I’m particularly reminded of the first two Kung-Fu Panda films’ that had excellent closing credits.. But I actually found it interesting that there was a film that was bold enough to go back to this style of film editing!

The cinematography in this film was excellent and got top marks from me. I really thought that it was great!

I don’t understand The Forgiven’s lukewarm reaction, because to me, this was an excellent film about guilt and privilege that does a great job taking a character that you would normally despise, and while not making him incredibly likeable, makes you sympathise with him. It’s a very good film overall, particularly strengthened by the Moroccan cast. It’s a really good movie and I would recommend checking it out, but be aware- you’re going to have to tolerate a lot of rich arseholes spouting passive aggressive racist language throughout, but the film never justifies them and doesn’t let you forget that they are bad people. It does an excellent job dressing down the privilege of upper-class Britain.
Calvin – Nerd Consultant

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