The Forgiven takes place over a weekend in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) are a wealthy but unhappy couple. He’s a doctor and a heavy drinker with a medical negligence lawsuit hanging over him, she’s a children’s book author who hasn’t published in ten years. They snipe at each other constantly as they drive through the Moroccan desert to the annual bacchanal put on by their gay friends Richard and Dally (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry-Jones), who’ve taken over a ksar – an enclosed, fortified mud-brick castle complex – and renovated it into a luxury retreat.
They stop for lunch on the way and bad-tempered David drinks most of a bottle of wine. They resume their journey, bitching about the distance, the lack of signposting and the vagueness of the directions they’ve been given. Darkness descends, and in the middle of an argument David takes his eyes off the road. A young man pops up out of nowhere in front of the car, and David hits and kills him.
Meanwhile back at the ksar, the festivities have begun. The decadent Westerners drink, do drugs, get naked to swim in the pool and eventually sit down to a lavish dinner prepared and served by a large staff of locals, who hide their contempt for the behaviour of these godless infidels, except among themselves. When David and Jo show up late with the dead body of the young man in their car, word gets round, the police are called and more ominously, the dead boy’s Berber father turns up to claim his son’s body.
The story unfolds from here on in a kind of split narrative. One strand stays at the party, where the debauchery escalates to the increasing disgust of the Moroccans. The other thread follows David as he goes off to do penance for his misdeed and if possible make amends. We cut back and forth between these utterly contrasting scenarios, and via flashbacks we learn the full story of why the boy was there in the first place, how the Henningers reacted at the scene and the role played by the young man’s friend who witnessed it all.
The Forgiven is based on a 2012 novel by Lawrence Osborne, and directed by Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh who also made The Guard and Calvary, movies that deal with similar themes of grave moral transgression, guilt and atonement.
McDonagh has moved out of Ireland’s tragic moral landscape to set his themes in a more contemporary one: puritanical but impoverished Islam vs affluent but decadent West. He could not have drawn his contrasts more starkly. The partygoers come across as uniformly ignorant, insensitive and boorish. The possibility that ISIS is lurking is mentioned more than once, and you wonder how they can be so recklessly stupid as to behave the way they do, and to say the things they do, in front of pious people.
You almost wish ISIS WOULD turn up to teach them some respect! I think it was a misjudgment on McDonagh’s part to make the westerners so uniformly unlikeable, and it occurred to me that the whole clash of cultures thing would have worked better with a bit less exaggeration and a bit more nuance in characterisation.
Nevertheless, it’s an intelligent, well-written and gripping drama.