Director: John Michael McDonagh
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Caleb Landry Jones
Effectively playing as Only God Forgives in Morocco but reconfigured for the tea-time ITV drama crowd, the latest from John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary) turns cultural collision into a literal catalysing event for its unfolding drama. Pompous alcoholic David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) and his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) are en route to a lavish soiree on the crest of the Sahara hosted by fellow public school alum ‘Dicky’ (Matt Smith) and his indiscernibly famous boytoy Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). Speeding through the desert, they run down a poor local boy selling fossils; an accident they admit to while simultaneously skimping on the details. While Dicky does his damnedest to keep the mishap from crashing his party, David is cornered into confronting the deceased boy’s father (Ismael Kanater).
Unfurling at a leisurely pace, the narrative therefore splinters once the opening act has set the board. David disappears into the wilds with the very real threat that he may never return, while Jo takes the opportunity to unwind in the lap of luxury; chiefly by indulging a flirtation with Christopher Abbott’s vaguely charming financial analyst Tom. Surrounded by dunes of cocaine and fountains of wine that never stop flowing, Jo forgets about the plight of her husband (and her own portion of guilt) remarkably swiftly, while DP Larry Smith (also of the aforementioned Only God Forgives) casts Dicky’s Moroccan fortress in chic shades of bisexual neon.
The Forgiven harks back further than Smith’s pairings with Nicolas Winding Refn, however. With the entirety of it’s credits playing up-front, one is guided further, to the pictures of old, to the golden ages of both Hollywood and the world cinema stage. With it’s measured pacing, scattershot emphasis on character and associated psychological scrutiny, one suspects The Forgiven is intended to ape the malaise of Antonioni or his contemporaries, as well as any number of mid-budget American pictures of the early-to-mid ’70s that picked particularly at the modern psyche. McDonagh’s film isn’t just old world but old school; feeling generally indebted to an age of mercurial intrigue and introspection.
The trouble is that the material is a little thin. Fiennes works small wonders with what he’s given, and The Forgiven does boast a strong character arc for David. The odious front that the man maintains is convincingly deconstructed. His haughty sense of colonial privilege and racist disdain is eroded in favour of genuine remorse and a barely hidden death wish. None of which is particularly new or surprising, though, and it’s mainly to the actors’ credit (Kanater, Fiennes and his frequent co-star Saïd Taghmaoui) that the tale remains anywhere close to compelling.
The report is much messier back at Dicky’s basecamp. While McDonagh has gathered together an exceptional cast (Abbott and Landry Jones are especially strong draws), the elitist excesses displayed carry little bite or insight and feel rather akin to the flimsy paperback observations found on HBO’s The White Lotus. The Forgiven studies both white colonial shame and white colonial shamelessness, but comes up short of anything revelatory. Class disparity is flatly alluded to in any number of unsubtle sequences, but the whole has the exhausted feel of the comedown section of La Dolce Vita. To paraphrase the sourced Velvet Underground song that features; it is tired, it is weary.
Which makes for something of a conundrum. McDonagh keeps us guessing as to how this is all going to play out, which maintains the attention span well enough, and Smith’s cinematography certainly keeps our eyes peeled. The various upheavals of Morocco seem truthfully reflected, so the film feels well-researched. It’s eminently watchable. But it amounts to so little. Like the exhausted partygoers disbanding during the film’s protracted finale, we’re left to totter back out into the world, our eyes-stinging, in search of our next dose of escapism, not entirely satisfied with our exotic, tokenistic experience.
This party’s, naggingly, a bit of a bust.