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The Forgiven review: Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes fumble forgiveness in international drama

John Michael McDonagh's international tale about lifestyles of the rich and heinous misses the mark.

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in The Forgiven
(Image: © Vertical Entertainment)

Our Verdict

The Forgiven lacks fire and confrontation behind John Michael McDonagh's luxury commentaries, which wastes stellar performances on a flaccid tale of atonement.

For

  • Ralph Fiennes plays a proper jerk
  • McDonagh's prodding humor does come through
  • Paradise locations look stunning

Against

  • It's provocative out of boredom
  • Lacking the strength of introspection
  • Tonally adrift

John Michael McDonagh's The Forgiven is a disillusioning misfire that favors the filmmaker's adoration of social disruption and taboos, but is as shallow as its caricature of affluent one percenters. This adaptation of Lawrence Osborne's novel is neither as scathing the McDonagh's War On Everyone nor narratively taught as The Guard

Moroccan dunes surround a gated oasis where McDonagh's glamorous ensemble sips, snorts and snarks their way through another lewd tale about disrespectful tourists, except he's not his usually razor-sharp self in terms of tragic commentary. It's hard to tell if he's trying to be scolding or plainly showing toxic lifestyles of the rich and famous.

In the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) throws a weekend getaway for VIP acquaintances in his isolated grand villa. Among those guests are children's author Jo Henninger (recent Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain) and private physician David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes). On their way, the Henningers are involved in an automotive accident that casts a shadow over the weekend. 

As gossip spreads, the Henningers attempt to enjoy what's left of open bars and endless feasts while the likes of financial advisors and acclaimed photographers cast judgment. Maybe the booze will erase the tension, or perhaps David and Jo will confront hard truths in paradise — because Westerners on foreign soil deserve to learn lessons, of course.

McDonagh doesn't soften the blow of characters being detestable "invaders" who show no respect for Muslim locals. The Forgiven goes out of its way for Jo and David to presume Morrocans as possible ISIS terrorists or for other cocaine-huffing socialites to belittle underprivileged masses currently working as servers at Richard's elegant soirée. What's troubling is how McDonagh seems less interested than usual in confronting characters who throw around homophobia, xenophobia and blatant racism like it's all a cutesy joke. 

Not that this is an accusation against McDonagh's behaviors — far from it. We've just seen McDonagh play with his monsters in more exciting ways, whereas here, provocateur attitudes are a mundane way of killing time, even with disinterest.

Cinematographer Larry Smith and production designer Willem Smit fulfill contracts of extravagance and opulence when creating Richard's den of illegal sins. A gorgeous supporting cast — Christopher Abbott, Abbey Lee, Caleb Landry Jones and more — are captured as gods indulging hedonism in exquisite North African settings. The Forgiven looks better than postcard landscapes as dinner tables sit atop sandy mounds, colorized by beautiful and vibrant Mediterranean palettes. Everything from goblet cocktails that sweat condensation, nightclub atmospheres on open-concept villa grounds and plates of Moroccan delicacies — they're all captured with sublime excellence to sell Richard's slice of secluded paradise. It's the camera's way of making us feel guilty for wishing we could participate in such luxurious escapes, now knowing the types who afford such extreme getaways.

The morality struggle at the heart of McDonagh's adapted screenplay does exist, as it has in eleventy-thousand other films where white characters learn lessons at the cost of different cultures. 

Fiennes plays a magnificent jerk forced into reconciliation, but The Forgiven is a toothless parable about seeking forgiveness. How the rich are willing to act out of boredom is reprehensible and David's arc means to atone for some of that. Yet, McDonagh struggles to inspire hope through another Caucasian trespasser's epiphany at the cost of impoverished innocents. 

Everything plays out like a formula used to soothe white guilt. While there's no denying how sumptuous the visuals of The Forgiven are, there's a hollowness to its messages and metaphors about dug-up fossils (the area's valuable natural resource). Practically nothing is learned by the right people, which is indubitably part of the point, and yet wholly unfulfilling come the final minutes.

The Forgiven features accomplished performances and splendid Moroccan backdrops but fumbles tonal cues to the extent of negating thematic importance. It's John Michael McDonagh's first real misfire, failing to meet the admissions of something like Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash where millionaires make a mockery of livelihoods for entertainment. 

It's certainly engaging to watch Matt Smith and Jessica Chastain indulge in conversations of poor taste because there are no repercussions for the invincibly wealthy, but not much else. The point of it all is made clear; it's just been dulled to a flattened surface that feels so far from the typically prickly and wittily barbed signatures of Mr. McDonagh.

The Forgiven receives a limited release in the US on July 1. It premieres in the UK on September 2. Check out more upcoming 2022 movies.

Matt Donato
Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.