The Forgiven, review: rich tourists, cocaine nights and a murderously bad safari
“L’Afrique…” drawls sodden tourist David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) to his bored American wife Jo (Jessica Chastain), as the coast of Morocco hoves into view in The Forgiven. These two are inbound with low enthusiasm for a weekend bacchanal, which goes haywire before it’s even begun. While they’re speeding to a mountainous party haven, with David drunk at the wheel, he knocks down and kills a local teenager in the dark.
The ramifications of this boy’s death – and all the ways white privilege is meant to get David off the hook – are the driving force of the plot, taken from Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel. As adapted by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary), what dominates instead here is bickering – not just between the central couple, but their gay hosts (Matt Smith, outclassing Caleb Landry Jones) and just about all the revellers, a range of louche globe-trotting expats no sane guest-list outside Agatha Christie would assemble. Major-domo Hamid (Mourad Zaoui) stands by, stoic with contempt, while everyone disgraces themselves in games of coke-snorting hedonism and cackling oneupmanship.
McDonagh never met a callous laugh-line he could resist: David calling himself “a big fan of Prince Andrew” is calculated for a reflexive guffaw. He’s a Chelsea doctor, recently smarting from a malpractice suit, who settles into a nightly alcoholic fug, while his wife blithely declares herself “an accessory” – not just before and after the fact. When the boy’s Berber father, played with pained gravity by Ismael Kanater, insists David accompany him to the burial, he wriggles furiously in his public-school way, before realising he’s got to go, a wad of cash in hand.
Out in the desert, he finally grasps the concept of remorse – an arc Fiennes plays with commendable nuance in his grim-faced way. Meanwhile, Jo kills the time with a feckless playboy compatriot (a devilishly attractive Christopher Abbott), which enables the understretched Chastain to do some amusingly shameless flirting, and openly flaunt their fling in front of the Moroccans.
The Forgiven concentrates on awful people doing awful things they’ll pay for unless they can avoid it, but as morality play it’s stuck in a rut, with an ending that just seems to have stumped McDonagh – it dissipates. A sturdier excuse was needed for parading all this hideous behaviour: the film upends this basket of deplorables, vividly enough, and just stirs them around.
The cast look like they had a great time playing useless snobs, which must be one of the easier acting assignments going, but that’s not to say they all do it equally well. Like Tarantino in The Hateful Eight, McDonagh can’t disguise the wicked kick he’s getting out of playing who’s-the-worst-here-really – and there’s no heft when the chickens come home to roost.
18 cert, 117 min. In cinemas on Friday