The Forgiven

The Forgiven
The Forgiven
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It appears that white privilege and wealth toxicity is having its Hollywood moment. This perpetuation, which takes the shape of everything from Rian Johnson’s forthcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery to HBO comedy drama The White Lotus to Swedish provocateur Ruben Östlund’s Triangle Of Sadness and beyond, has become something of a staple in our cultural diet. John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary)’s new release covers similar ground — but not without some drawbacks.

In The Forgiven, there is nothing for the ultra-rich but an endless bohemian reverie at a Saharan desert castle – or ksar – owned by a couple called Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry-Jones). As aging English bachelors rub shoulders with an American financial analyst and bevies of scantily clad women arrive for a weekend of revels, it seems we’re being invited to expect a spiky whodunnit. But there’s no mystery about who kills Moroccan lad Driss on the dunes leading up to the fortress: David (Ralph Fiennes), drunk and argumentative, hits him at full speed with wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) in the passenger seat. They arrive at the party with Driss’ limp body in the back as an unexpected gift.

McDonagh is clearly going for caustic satire in this relentlessly crass portrayal of how guests respond to a killing when the show must go on, and of David’s racism, misogyny and prejudice within a social circle that not only tolerates such attitudes but actively nurtures them. But when does any representation cease to be a critique and start feeling like complicity? The characters know nothing about Arabs except their own stereotypes – do the film-makers themselves? The veil of comedy here feels too thin; too stretched. Coupled with an overall lack of subtlety and stiffness to the dialogue, there is a weariness to the narrative which only grows more wearying with time.

David is sent across the desert to repent with Driss’ father (Ismael Kanater) and minder Anouar (a terrific Saïd Taghmaoui), while Jo indulges in every last drop of high life – champagne, cocaine; even fellow guest Tom (Christopher Abbott). Her contempt for her husband, and the boy’s death, is plain enough; no matter what her crocodile tears might imply. It’s not Chastain’s most imaginative part, whereas Fiennes performs the redemption arc with grace and complexity. Still, what redemption is there for these unbearable people who have been framed against handsome Moroccan panoramas by director of photography Larry Smith? The conscious contrast between privilege’s ugliness and the film’s sleek luxury aesthetic beauty is woefully skin-deep and predictable – much like the rest of the story.

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