After the death of their child, Jo and David Henninger take a trip to Morocco. They’re visiting Richard and Dally, a gay couple celebrating their newly refurbished desert retreat. When The Forgiven begins, we don’t know the Henningers’ backstory or why their marriage is fueled by rage. David (Ralph Fiennes) escapes from his grief by drinking. His face is perpetually frozen in a scowl. He’s the theatrical mask of tragedy brought to life.
Adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s novel, The Forgiven starts as a portrait of a disintegrating marriage. But Osborne, like his literary antecedent Paul Bowles, places the couple in a foreign land to make examples out of their narcissistic, privileged lives. They, and their friends partying in the desert, come to represent the consequences of imperialism. These spoiled Westerners embrace cynicism, indifference and decadence. One marriage may be disintegrating, but so is the culture that condones and encourages their questionable behavior.
Instead of spending their first night in Morocco at a hotel, David decides to drive through the desert at night. As he and his wife lose their way while en route to Richard and Dally’s place, they continue to bicker. Distracted, drunk and irritable, David crashes the car into and instantly kills a boy named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui). The crash happens early in the film. But The Forgiven isn’t a detective story. David and Jo don’t attempt to cover up the boy’s death.
When the Henningers belatedly arrive with Driss’ body slumped in the backseat, Richard (Matt Smith) summons the police. Driss’ death is ruled an accident and the party, featuring various dissolute souls, continues. The following day, Driss’ father, Taheri (Ismael Kanater), shows up to collect his son’s body. Before he leaves, Taheri asks that David accompany him home to view the burial. It’s customary, he says.
But Richard’s Moroccan servants can’t actually verify that it is a custom because they’re from a different region of the country. The chef jokes that if David leaves with Taheri, the stricken father will chop off his fingers, one by one. John Michael McDonagh, who wrote and directed the film, includes several Upstairs Downstairs asides like this, in which the servants take the place of a Greek chorus. They find the smug Westerners wanting, without a moral or spiritual compass to guide them.
Until he starts the journey to Taheri’s home, David has been projecting his misery and self-loathing outward. He inhales and exhales contempt instead of oxygen. Once he’s separated from his wife, McDonagh’s editor simplistically cuts back and forth between David’s travails and Jo’s petulant moods. Each time the tension starts to build during David’s scenes—Is Taheri planning to kill him?—we abruptly return to the louche-bags shaking their asses by the pool. Two parallel films start to emerge but never connect.
Chastain is miscast as Jo. I imagined what Rosamund Pike or Naomie Harris would have done with the role, to amp up the melodrama. Chastain creates a sullen mood rather than a character. She can project vulnerability and innocence, as she did in The Help (2011), without seeming, well, helpless. In this film, McDonagh zooms in on her angular jawbone to suggest the presence of an indomitable soul. In her triumphant role last year in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Chastain, underneath all that makeup, stayed in character while also playing to the audience. She knew we were in on the joke. As Jo, Chastain looks guarded, as if she doesn’t know who her audience is or how to grab the camera’s attention.
The underwritten script doesn’t help. Films about loss are meant to be cathartic for the characters and for those of us at home weeping in our chairs. While David is wondering whether or not he’ll live, Jo begins a meaningless flirtation with an American. She talks more openly with him than she does with her husband. But she doesn’t mention Driss or any details about her own child. Her repressed emotions get no air time, and The Forgiven is unbalanced because of their absence.
In his excellent 2014 film Calvary, McDonagh consistently drew out something bleak and wry from the actors. He reaches for that same tone at Richard and Dally’s sleek oasis, but it doesn’t land or pair well with the arc of David’s storyline. The Forgiven might have worked as a parable if we’d only followed David to his inevitable fate, while leaving Jo and the dance party behind in the dust.
‘The Forgiven’ is now playing at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and the AMC Metreon 16 in San Francisco.