John Michael McDonagh is perhaps best known for black comedies set in the sinister, sprawling vistas of Ireland, but he’s arrived in sunnier climes for his latest feature, The Forgiven. Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Lawrence Osborne, the drama sees functioning alcoholic David (Ralph Fiennes) and his glamourous wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) arrive in Morocco to attend the luxury desert retreat of friends Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones) for a weekend fuelled by booze and narcotics. Tragedy strikes whilst on their way to the party, and the couple are soon forced to face the consequences of their actions.
Shot in a sun-burnt sheen, there’s a glossiness to the production that fits in well with the materialistic, culturally appropriating nature of the film. There are no nice characters to root for, which might prove divisive to some audiences, but the narrow-minded, stereotypical perspective of the landscape from the affluent West provides the thematic heft as well as the humour in large parts.
McDonagh adapts the original text with a razor-sharp nib, David spouting boomer-esque vitriol as his holiday goes from bad to worse, while Jo glances up from her copy of André Gide’s The Immoralist, a self-conscious nod towards the path her husband has ahead of him. In terms of plot, it’s a simple narrative but rich in its incisive exploration of classism and colonialism; it is also superbly directed, McDonagh skilfully balancing the darkly comic tone as the story builds to a tense climax.
The excellent script is packed with wonderfully witty, faux-philosophical passages, and spoils are shared by a star-studded cast. Fiennes and Chastain are at the top of their game in the leading roles, revelling in the toxicity of David and Jo’s complex marriage. Smith and Landry Jones are terrific as the morally nonchalant hosts of the bash, and the always impressive Christopher Abbott escapes his career confines of obscure indies in an interesting supporting role. There’s also an enjoyable turn from Saïd Taghmaoui as gofer Anouar who, over the course of the film, forms an unlikely friendship with the initially non-compliant protagonist.
As gripping as it is grotesquely funny, The Forgiven is a brilliant depiction of despicable characters, and another hit for acclaimed writer and director John Michael McDonagh.