Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: John Michael McDonagh from Lawrence Osborne’s novel “The Forgiven”
Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh, Lawrence Osborne
Cast: Abbey Lee, Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Celeb Landry Jones, Saïd Taghmaoui, Christopher Abbott
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/22
Opens: July 1, 2022
If this is what the super-rich do with their money, I’m content being plain ol’ middle class. Who needs to snort coke, to commit adultery, engage in dirty dancing, drink the night away, have servants that would be the envy of the nobility in “Downton Abbey,” and soak up the atmosphere of the desolate though spectacular desert scenery in the Moroccan Atlas? The people who inhabit John Michael McDonagh’s film, written by the director inspired by Lawrence Osborne’s novel of the same name, think they have life figured out. We’re all going to die, so why not party?
This brooding, compelling picture which opens on the kind of party we middling characters have never had and moves with just a few flashbacks to a dramatic denouement, has a cast headed by Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain. The back-and-forth commentary in their car will seem to us movie viewers as clever repartee but sets forth a twelve-year-old marriage that has been headed for the skids for a long time. One might wonder whether David Henniger (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henniger (Jessica Chastain) would have cemented their nuptials if they—a doctor and a failed writer of children’s books—stayed home, gave up the booze and coke, and lived like well-heeled folks with birthday parties to celebrate their children rather than themselves.
Filmed by Larry Smith on location in Morocco, “The Forgiven” sweeps us away with wide lensing-looks at miles and miles of desert, sometimes providing the kinds of views that would have tour busses stopping to announce “everybody out, take pictures, fifteen minutes.” David and Jo had another destination in mind: a lavish party at a renovated, gated ksar, food and drink served under the direction of English-speaking Hamid (Mourad Zaoui). David, though, has an unsettling story to tell. Fortified by drink and driving too fast, the desert sand blasting the windshield, he has had a terrible accident. His car hit Driss, a Moroccan boy who is ostensibly selling fossils but actually planning with his friend to steal the car. Though the couple might have run from the accident, they inexplicably (given their low moral bar) carry the boy’s body back to the ksar and brought in the local police.
When Driss’s father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) and an English-speaking guide Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui) show up at the villa after a long drive, they demand that David accompany them back to their isolated Berber home to atone for Driss’s death, we may wonder why David is willing to do so when his party pals, including Tom (Christopher Abbott) and Dickie (Matt Smith) advise him simply to pay 1000 Euros. We in our theater seats wonder: will David be killed, or will the Berber father honor Arab hospitality and require the Englishman simply to attend the burial?
Director McDonagh, whose 2014 film “Calvary” focuses on a priest falling to dark forces, switches from the deadly serious scenes in the Berber home to the over-the-top party in the ksar. In the latter scenes David wife’s Jo carries on an adulterous affair with Tom (Christopher Abbott), signaling to us that she need not fear the end of a marriage which has bored her and which is filled with David Mamet-style barbs.
Getting past the events of a vacation with its mixture of bonhomie among the rich and deadly scenarios in the Berber home, McDonagh makes us aware that the colonialism that has poisoned relations between the haves and have nots is still alive. Call it neo-colonialism if you will. Though Westerners like these people have provided jobs for the local people, the Moroccans, who had been under the thumbs of the French until 1956, cannot be expected to sing Kumbaya with the party people who consist of Americans, French and English. By contrast, Anouar, who speaks perfect English and acts as interpreter and guide, is torn between loyalty to his people and a desire to live in Sweden. That dream becomes part of the dark humor that embraces the proceedings, leaving us to recall how Syrian refugees find new homes in Western Europe (especially Germany) and wondering whether the political left in our own country may be exaggerating the hostility that formerly colonialized people have for us. Almost needless to say, Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain make a perfect picture of marital discord.
117 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+