No-one is ever really “forgiven” in a film scripted and directed by John Michael McDonagh, or his brother, Martin. Like the Coens or Jim Jarmusch, the McDonaghs specialise in overturning the cinema’s age-old storytelling conventions. In a James Bond movie, for instance, a large part of the audience’s pleasure comes from watching the same predictable scenarios unfold time and again. To change a winning formula would be to risk alienating viewers – hence the dilemma as to who should be the next James Bond.
The Forgiven, we’re never at ease. None of the main characters are likeable or sympathetic, and nothing is quite what it seems. The story doesn’t break down into a tidy arrangement of heroes and villains because the Berbers who have been wronged by the careless, rich westerners, are so consistently secretive and menacing.
The Forgiven could have been a rather obvious indictment of the gulf that exists between the moneyed classes of the West, and the hand-to-mouth existence of the poor in places such as Morocco. It could have been a critique of the exploitative and patronising attitudes the wealthy bring with them when confronted with an unfamiliar culture. While all this is implicit in McDonagh’s script, the exploiters are also potential victims.
The story begins with a middle-aged couple overnighting at a hotel in Morocco before they drive on to a party at a friend’s estate on the other side of the Atlas mountains. David and Jo Henninger have been together long enough to lose whatever attraction they once felt for each other. He is a successful London surgeon, with a growing attachment to the bottle. She is an American novelist who hasn’t written a word in years. They bicker and trade insults with practiced aplomb. Why am I thinking harpy?” he snipes. “Why am I thinking shrill?”
“Why am I thinking high functioning alcoholic?” she snaps back.
And so it goes, with suitably polished performances from Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, as the jaded spouses – a rather different matter to their previous union inCoriolanus (2011).
Driving through the Atlas Mountains at night is not advisable for any tourist, let alone one who has just polished off a bottle of wine and is in engaged in a non-stop argument wth his wife. The couple don’t know that an Arab boy named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) and his younger brother, are planning an ambush, to sell them a fossil or possibly rob them. Driss is packing a gun, just in case.
When the would-be robber steps out to flag down the couple, a distracted David hits and kills him. The next thing we know the Henningers have arrived at their destination with the boy’s body in the back of the car. This causes momentary consternation for their hosts, but doesn’t stop the day-and-night partying at their luxury compound in the desert.
Those hosts are a gay couple – Richard (Matt Dunn), another wealthy London specialist; and his boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), a camp, bitchy American. Both are completely reptilian in their attitude towards the Moroccans, especially their hired staff. As hosts they are happy to encourage the most decadent, self-indulgent behaviour among their guests, which include a British Lord (Alex Jennings), who never appears without an entourage of glamour girls; a stroppy French photographer (Marie-Josée Croze); and Tom, a louche American hedge fund broker (Christopher Abbott). Australia’s own Abbey Lee appears in the flattering role of a drunken blonde bimbo. Better luck next time, Abbey!
None of these people are even vaguely bearable, and the servants are only too aware of the fact. Richard, as master of ceremonies, is quick to tell David he must report the accident to the authorities, but he doesn’t anticipate any problems. As predicted, the police are not troublesome, but a visit from the boy’s Berber father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), and his companions, is a different matter. Not only has the father come to collect his son’s body, he wants David to accompany him home for the burial. This is unwelcome news for David (“He might be Isis!”), but he finally agrees.
From this point the film divides into halves, as David is forced to confront a very different kind of world and feel the first glimmerings of guilt and shame, not to mention fear. Meanwhile, back at the compound, Jo, with the encouragement of her hosts, is flirting wildly with Tom.
The expectation is that David, who has been an arrogant jerk up to this point, will see the error of his ways. Jo, we assume will be so ashamed of her adulterous liaison she will be reconciled with the new, chastened David. If things don’t work out this way, it’s because neither party seems to have read the Hollywood script. Another reason is the way McDonagh makes only the most superficial attempt to show us these events through Moroccan eyes. We get jokes from the servants, and some commentary by Abdellah’s offsider, Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), who dreams of migrating to Sweden, but as viewers we are cut off from how the Berbers are thinking.
This puts us, by association, in the same camp with David and Jo, Richard and Dally, and the other ghastly house guests. It’s not clear whether this is a failure on the director’s part or a deliberate strategy to make us feel morally implicated in a society that can produce such monsters. We’re never able to actually like David, although Fiennes is masterly in the way he portrays the character’s transformation. Rather than a man of conscience he now seems like a victim of shellshock, his previous irritability having given way to an acceptance of fate.
When he sets out on the trip to Abdellah’s homeland, David’s wish for “forgiveness” is to be absolved of legal liability. He thinks this may prove costly in monetary terms, but has no sense that he might pay a greater, psychological penalty. We never share this confidence, feeling a growing sense of foreboding and insecurity as the story progresses. Like one of those franchise horror films in which everyone must answer for their sexual and social misdeeds, there’s a disturbing feeling that being forgiven is not the same as getting away with it.
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Written by John Michael McDonagh, after a novel by Lawrence Osborne
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones, Christopher Abbott, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ismael Kanater, Mourad Zaoui, Marie-Josée Croze, Abbey Lee, Alex Jennings, Fiona O’Shaughnessy
UK, rated MA 15+, 117 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 July, 2022