The Forgiven review: Ralph Fiennes on form in new drama

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Ralph Fiennes gives a biting and nuanced performance in The Forgiven – a new drama from director John Michael McDonagh.

Based on Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel of the same name, The Forgiven is John Michael McDonagh’s fifth outing as both writer and director. It’s a simple, moralistic tale designed to expose the horrendous discriminatory mindsets of the upper classes – and it succeeds in being a portrait of some rather despicable people. 

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain star as David and Jo Henninger, who run over and kill a young boy on their way to a lavish party at a mansion in the Moroccan desert. The narrative focuses on the way the couple and their wealthy friends deal with the incident, and the consequences for both them and the boy’s family. 

One thing The Forgiven is not is subtle. From the outset, Ralph Fiennes is given a slew of biting dialogue to deliver, lines that succinctly reveal David’s reprehensible personality. He holds no respect or regard for anything outside of his own lived experience – in terms of race, culture, and gender. Chastain’s Jo may not be so overtly hateful, but is content to sit back and reap the rewards of being associated with her privileged husband. The film’s message is clear, whether you’re guilty of these behaviours or simply complicit, you are equally responsible for perpetuating dehumanising views. 

Therein lies the catch. The Forgiven makes its point clear almost immediately, before David’s transformative character arc even begins. And then it continues to make the same point again and again, in increasingly monotonous and heavy-handed ways. The debauchery of the party – hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his partner (Caleb Landry-Jones) reveals the self-indulgent nature of the characters. It also again highlights the othering of the Moroccan people and their culture. Even Richard, who’s portrayed as more liberal than David, uses Moroccan culture to make himself look exotic and interesting rather than out of any real respect.

These scenes are returned to often, despite telling us nothing that we don’t already know. These are horrible people. We understand.

Those moments detract from the interesting part of the story too – David’s emotional journey. Shortly after the Henninger’s arrive at Richard’s party, the dead boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) arrives to collect his son’s body and request that David accompany him and assist with the burial. The request is initially accepted reluctantly, but during their journey across the desert David undergoes a slow but meaningful transformation.  

He’s forced to interact with people he would usually consider ‘other’ and to engage with their culture. Through this exposure he begins to understand the limitations of his narrow worldview, and is the only character to undergo any meaningful development. Fiennes gives a very nuanced and contemplative performance, adding some much-needed depth to a previously two dimensional character. 

Ismael Kanata is also on top form as the murdered boy’s father, at times broken by anger and grief, but also stone-faced and pragmatic when it’s needed. It’s a shame that few members of this talented cast are able to be so versatile – the vast majority of these characters aren’t that interesting; not given much to do besides swan around being self-centred. The exception to this being the Moroccan staff at Richard’s mansion, who mock the lifestyle of their employer and his friends, providing some moments of lightheartedness. 

The Forgiven’s point is a simple one – unfortunately this means that beyond depicting the selfishness of the rich, the film doesn’t have much to say.  It’s only the well-written Moroccan characters and Fiennes’ excellent performance that lift The Forgiven out of mundanity. And what a performance it is.

The Forgiven is in UK cinemas now.

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