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The Forgiven review – rich racists make for dull company in a dark quasi-thriller

John Michael McDonagh's angry but sluggish adaptation lacks dramatic punch, falling short in its attempts at anti-wealth satire

It’s one of the more remarkable symptoms of our current media age that, in a climate in which the inherent evil and criminality of the ultra-rich is endlessly discussed and raged against, we can’t seem to get enough insights into how the other half (or 0.1%) live. From the capitalist titans that populate Succession to the wannabe oligarchs of HBO’s Industry, via the continued popularity of “old money” media like Downton Abbey, their mix of lavish lifestyles and reprehensible morals can prove addictive. Even in this environment, though, you may struggle to stomach the people who populate The Forgiven, a collection of reprobates who learn nothing and, in the end, go nowhere in a dark but overly loose shaggy dog thriller.

Out in a remote Saharan region of Morocco, a luxuriant party is being held by a pair of white expats in an old Islamic castle, hard to be invited to and even harder to actually find as their incoming guests speed through the desert. Two of these guests are David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain), a rich but archly unhappy London couple who, lost and drunk on a dark and dusty road, run over and kill a local Berber boy named Driss. Panicking, they bring his body to the grand house of their host Richard (Matt Smith), followed by the easily bribed police and then the altogether more insistent father of Driss, tribal leader Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), who seeks a more enigmatic form of justice.

Writer-director John Michael McDonagh doesn't hesitate in making the British and American characters deeply unlikable right away, from David’s old colonial racism to the ways the party guests express nothing but either hatred or hedonistic indifference to one another, all while treating the Moroccan staff as invisible. With the crisis point of Driss’s death reached, though, something starts to shift, at least in David, who has to follow Abdellah into the desert to help him bury Driss and maybe face a lethal reckoning.

The undeniable realities of the heat and fear in the desert forces David to re-open the actual humanity within himself but, in his absence, Jo only leans further in to her own acidic detachment from real feeling. As The Forgiven cuts between the pair, it makes for an initially interesting dynamic of two drastically opposed ways of processing guilt, but in having David “find himself” in the rugged Sahara, McDonagh inevitably falls foul of the same exoticised othering of the Berbers that he’s criticising his characters for.

There are some very striking shots of the Saharan landscapes, from gorgeous oases to the stark way the early morning fog almost turns the sand grey, but otherwise, the journey into the desert as a metaphor for a journey into the self feels rather hackneyed. Back at the party, there’s a similar lack of originality, McDonagh picking easy targets in the form of a hypocritically “woke” French journalist and the coke-addled British aristocracy whilst the story just spins its wheels. Things liven up whenever Christopher Abbott is on screen as a horny American financier who takes a wolf-like interest in Jo from the moment she arrives, but a lot of the rest of the cast feel like they’re sleepwalking.

Fiennes, Chastain, and Smith don’t really have to stretch themselves to play sneeringly upper-crust types, and there’s a general sense of low-effort acting across the board. Mixed with the sluggish and wonky plot, this eventually leads to an unshakeable feeling of pointlessness, and though McDonagh does eventually find some genuinely original angles for his characters, it comes way too late in the day to make a tangible difference. Neither stinging enough as satire or impactful enough as earnest drama, The Forgiven falls uncomfortably between the two, running out of puff long before its trek across the desert is over.

The Forgiven is released in UK cinemas on 2 September.

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