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North Africa has often figured in literature and film as a place where Western characters find themselves tested, burned down to their essence, in the crucible of Saharan heat. Two prime examples are Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid… (2015), both based on Paul Bowles stories, both depicting the desert as a site of high peril for disrespectful outsiders. Adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel of the same name, John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven plays with these ideas: at one point, the Moroccan cook at a Saharan palace speculates jokingly about the brutal reprisals that surely await David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes), an English doctor whose drunk driving has killed a young Berber man named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui). But David will undergo a rather different experience as he is forced to contend with the maxim uttered by the dead youth’s father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater): “Everything must be faced.”
Ostensibly a caustic comedy-drama about the attitudes of blasé, blinkered Westerners abroad, The Forgiven feels somewhat like The Sheltering Sky as it might have been made by Accident-period Joseph Losey. It is scrupulous in avoiding false glamourising of the Arab world; indeed, while it is another expression of David’s cultural arrogance, it could also be seen as a sign of his lucidity when he sneers at the opulent décor with which his host Richard (Matt Smith) has embellished his palace: “I hate all this ethnic pretence and affectation.”
McDonagh’s fourth feature recaptures the moral seriousness of his second, 2014’s Calvary, following the genre-chic facetiousness of his misconceived War on Everyone (2016). The writer-director’s way with well-turned acidic lines can feel too neatly lapidary, but he knows it. When one palace staff member makes a profoundly disobliging comment in Arabic about David’s wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) that sounds like a traditional proverb, a co-worker wryly responds, also in Arabic, “You should have a Twitter account.”
The Forgiven is meticulous in depicting its characters’ flaws. Even when charming, the Western characters are arrogant, racist, blithely callous: nothing stops their party, not even the presence of a dead boy’s grieving father. But the Moroccan palace staff too are contemptuous towards the visitors – misogynistic, homophobic, and cynical when waving David off to what they see as certain doom. The most likeable house guest is Tom (Christopher Abbott), a financial analyst who at least has the merit of being unashamedly upfront about his attitudes to sex and money. Even Jo, established at the start as the put-upon younger wife to an alcoholic boor, emerges as much less sympathetic, promptly forgetting both her husband’s absence once he leaves the palace, and the very fact of Driss’s death.
McDonagh is characteristically canny in his playful direction of the actors, even when dealing with near-stereotypes – with Smith elegantly lofty as the party host, Abbott’s Tom using self-effacing humour as a protective façade for his privileged self-indulgence, and Alex Jennings incarnating the very breed of posh party animal that Fiennes played so memorably in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015). The most striking false note is Caleb Landry Jones’s braying turn as Richard’s extrovert boyfriend.
Though Chastain and Fiennes don’t entirely convince as a couple, Chastain impresses as an abruptly liberated sensualist: Jo’s pleased-as-punch swagger after an adulterous night is priceless. By contrast, Saïd Taghmaoui is sympathetic and down to earth as Abdellah’s right-hand man Anouar, whose company allows David to thaw, and who has his own unimpressed take on his native culture: where Europeans cherish their fantasy of the desert, Anouar yearns for Sweden.
Fossils are a key metaphor: Driss’s community digs them up and sells them, though his father sees trilobites as embodying long-buried evil. Like the trilobite, David’s true core has to be unearthed, gradually exposed to daylight as the layers he has built up are stripped down in a process of gradual humanisation; Fiennes, as good as any living actor at portraying English desiccation, excels as David’s tender, scarred humanity is gradually released from his shell of colonialistic contempt.
The harsh pallor of Fiennes’ skin tones stands in stark contrast with the Condé Nast Traveller lusciousness of red-haired Chastain framed against orange dunes and cerulean sky. DoP Larry Smith, who also shot McDonagh’s The Guard (2011) and Calvary, lays on a hothouse opulence, heightening the artifice of the luxury with which the Westerners shut out the realities of the world outside – right up to the pitiless, surprising ending as everything, finally, is faced.
► The Forgiven is in UK cinemas now.