You can see what drew Ralph Fiennes to film-maker John Michael McDonagh. To judge by their work (specifically The Constant Gardener and Calvary), the pair share a fascination with passivity and self-destruction. Both themes are present with bells on in this Morocco-set comedy that’s determined to wipe the smile off your face. As a portrait of a hell on earth, The Forgiven makes every bit of the globe seem sulphurous.
Sozzled, erudite, non-PC British plastic surgeon, David Henninger (Fiennes; superb), is married to beautiful, if directionless, American, Jo (Oscar winner, Jessica Chastain; hardly stretched, but very watchable). The couple’s wealthy friends, Richard and Dally (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones; fab), have a mansion in the desert that’s perfect for debauched parties. On their way in the car to one of these events, David and Jo are involved in an unfortunate incident; they kill an Arab teenager called Driss (Omar Ghazaoui).
A few hours later, David’s cracking deliberately offensive jokes with Richard and Dally’s guests. He’s a coy bad boy, both electrified and disgusted by the attention his misbehaviour attracts (he’s terrified of becoming a vain old fool; he’s even more terrified of seeming old hat). His groan of dismay, when he’s criticised for making an “outdated” Oprah reference, is one for the ages.
Anyway, he thinks he can get away with murder. But he’s wrong. Driss’s nomad father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), arrives and demands that David make amends, by attending Driss’ funeral. Somewhat implausibly, David agrees. He leaves with Abdellah and Abdellah’s mate, Anouar (the sublime Said Taghmaoui). Meanwhile, Jo stays behind and proceeds to wear shoes and dresses so OTT they deserve their own memes.
All this time the gags just keep on coming. Swipes are taken at Prince Andrew and Johnny Depp. The Guardian newspaper and films about refugees get mocked. And even serious pronouncements launch quips. Hamid (Mourad Zaoui) the calm and resourceful Moroccan who manages Tom and Dally’s estate, delivers a typically profound aphorism. Instead of agreeing with him, an admiring local says, “You should have a Twitter account!”
The images are often as jolting as the jokes. At one point, Dally strikes Buster Keaton-ish poses for a series of photos. The latter break the fourth wall (we consume them as separate artefacts) and are properly good. The woman taking the photos is a progressive French journalist, Isabelle (Marie-Josee Croze) and she’s staying at the house along with a young, “edgy” Arab female director, Leila (Imane El Mechrafi), who’s on the lookout for funding.
We’re given a sense of how these creatives will frame the time they’ve spent with Richard and Dally. It’s easy to despise rich hosts and donors, but isn’t it hypocritical to eat their food and/or take their money? With the help of talented British cinematographer Larry Smith (the whole film looks stunning), McDonagh keeps changing the lens through which we view privilege.
Things take a turn for the earnest in the last act; Anouar becomes a frustratingly diffuse character and old-fashioned words like “decent” and “honourable” get bandied about. Ah well. At least the film’s take on alcohol never gets wishy-washy. Stiff drinks are a killer. Life can be hard to enjoy while sober. McDonagh dances on the edge of that paradox right to the end.
117mins, cert 18