Despite its top shelf cast & capable direction, this drama about tourists behaving badly is nothing we haven’t seen before.
The Forgiven is a story about fantastically rich white people behaving badly in an “exotic” location, told by slightly less rich and hopefully better intentioned white people. So soon after HBO’s The White Lotus, it might be tempting to call this a new trend. But it’s probably more accurate to consider it business as usual.
This is not to say that it’s a bad film. The Forgiven is thoroughly competent in its writing, direction, and performances. It also happens to be — from its first scenes and the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-esque dynamic it establishes between its protagonists, to its ending which is strongly foreshadowed to the point of telegraphing — an obvious one.
Based on the 2012 Lawrence Osborne novel of the same name, The Forgiven is about the collision — both literally and figuratively — between the people of Morocco and the tourists and expats who come to carouse on their land. Bon vivant Richard (Matt Smith) and his insouciant boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones) have purchased a mansion in the desert and are christening it with a weekend-long bacchanal populated with artists, financial magnates, one lightly sneering journalist, and a few hangers on. The guest list includes Richard’s friends David (Ralph Fiennes), a pompous, functionally alcoholic Brit, and his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) a completely checked out American.
On their drive to the event, a local named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) selling fossils steps into the road. Inebriated and distracted, David doesn’t notice until it’s too late and hits the boy, killing him instantly. Shaken and marginally remorseful, David and Jo eventually arrive at their destination and try to shake off the tragedy during the first night of revelry. But Driss’s father arrives the next morning, requesting that the man responsible for his only son’s death accompany him to the burial. Convinced he has no choice, David agrees to go.
While David embarks on his reluctant journey of contrition, Jo stays at the mansion and enjoys a ripping bender with the other attendees. David tours the Moroccan countryside and learns firsthand of his victim’s dreams and desperation and his host’s suffering. Jo drinks, does coke, and flirts. Richard’s Moroccan employees occasionally dole some well-deserved judgement behind the guests’ backs.
It’s all perfectly well executed. Fiennes simmers with a creeping melancholy under his obnoxious exterior. Chastain nails the lightest sense of guilt before diving into navel-gazing hedonism. Smith seems to be having fun toying with his character’s air of moral ambiguity. Mourad Zaoui is droll but perceptive as Hamid, the head of Richard’s staff, and Saïd Taghmaoui is empathetic and thoughtful as Anouar, David’s interpreter. Cinematographer Larry Smith makes every exterior scene a stunner. Director John Michael McDonagh covers the proceedings with a curious but ultimately cold eye that leaves any moral judgement that might be delivered or eschewed up to the viewer.It’s all very smart and sleek and exactly what you’d expect from a prestige A list film about capital I Issues. This is both praise and criticism.
Ultimately, the biggest flaw in The Forgiven is that it’s largely told from its least interesting perspectives. A film that treats people who carry on as if they’re the main characters in everyone’s lives actually being the main character of a story is never going to be particularly fresh or groundbreaking. Especially not in a world where stories in which a Hamid or an Anouar is the protagonist and the Davids and Jos are supporting characters don’t exactly get the film festival gala treatment, if those stories get told at all. When only one side of a story consistently gets opportunities, that story starts to wear a little thin, no matter how well it might be told each time.
None of this is the fault of The Forgiven or its talented cast and crew. But viewers can’t be faulted for craving something different or new, either.