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EIFF 2022: ‘The Forgiven’ Review


One of the starriest films at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival is also one of the most disappointing. Based on the best-selling novel by Lawrence Osborne, ‘The Forgiven’ written and directed by John Michael McDonagh is a tedious morality play about great wealth and great poverty, how they so often exist so close to one another, and the trite lessons that rich people can learn from the disposable plebs who serve them.


Set over a weekend in Morocco, the story follows the Henninger’s, David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) who are on their way to a party being hosted by their exorbitantly wealthy friend Dickie (Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). Dickie has purchased a vast villa deep in the desert beyond the Atlas Mountains, which he has renovated, and now wants to celebrate with his loathsome bourgeois friends.


David and Jo get lost on the way to the party. They are stressed and tired, it’s the middle of the night, they are in the middle of the desert, and David has been drinking. When a young boy wanders into the road, David is unable to react in time. Instead of arriving at Dickie’s home ready to party, they arrive in a smashed up car, with post-traumatic stress, and a dead body in the back seat.


It’s a promising start, but McDonagh does nothing with it. Or at least nothing new with it. Skewering rich white people is somewhat commonplace in pop culture right now, and ‘The Forgiven’ just wheels out more of the same blunt satire. At one point a character says, “the world is a dreadful place. The best you can do is make fun of it.” McDonagh certainly makes fun of these dreadful Westerners, making no attempt to hide his distaste for them and their worldview, but the film ends up sharing their worldview.


It threatens to get interesting when the boys father turns up to claim his body, and demands that David come with him to his village to bury him, as a sign of respect. This splits the narrative in two, as David goes off on a redemptive journey across the Sahara into Berber country, whilst the partygoers just go about their business. Jo catches the eye of wealthy Wall Street guy Tom (Christopher Abbott) whose attention she more than welcomes. David’s story is the more interesting strand here, and thank goodness for Ralph Fiennes who brings more to the piece than the dull and vapid script is giving him.


Visually, this film is on point. The golden sands of the desert and the vivid blue sky make for a stunning backdrop. Then you put Jessica Chastain in front of it, looking like some gorgeous golden age era film star, and you’ve got a real pretty film on your hands. If you’re just here for the aesthetics then you’ll be very happy with ‘The Forgiven’. But if you’ve come to this hoping that the film has got something to say, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.


★★

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