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The Forgiven


‘…McDonagh’s unwillingness to characterise the Moroccan characters beyond surly servants and mute witnesses feels very old-fashioned and insensitive…’

My regular reader will know the degree to which I’m in thrall to the writings of Martin McDonagh; In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and The Banshees of Inesherin make up a considerable canon of cinematic work, with Seven Psychopaths the only one which doesn’t quite deliver despite some brilliant moments. His stage work is also remarkable, including the sublime A Behanding in Spokane. What IS surprising, however, is that his gift for the gab isn’t apparent in his brother’s work; John Michael McDonagh’s films have been consistently disappointing until now, and overblown lust-in-the-dust white-guilt melodrama The Forgiven changes nothing about that trend.

We have a familiar situation, from The Great Gatsby to The Bonfire of the Vanities, having the super-rich get involved in a car accident with a poor has been a regular prism through which the polarising of society can be cleanly seen. On this occasion, we’re in Morocco, where Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain) and her husband David (Ralph Fiennes) are making their way to Richard Galloway (Matt Smith, awful as ever) and his horrific VIP-only house party. David Henninger is a foul-mouthed racist, and manages a notable DUI by slamming their car into a young boy named Driss and killing him. This puts something of a crimp on the plans to party, not least when the boy’s father arrives to demand that David takes part in the boy’s burial, leaving Jo to embark on an affair…

What’s good here is the overall idea (you can’t outrun your fate in classic Appointment in Samarra style) and Fiennes’ performance; David Henninger goes on a voyage of self-discovery amongst threatening but possible peaceful strangers, and emerges a quite changed person, and Fiennes absolutely nails this transformation to great effect. But Chastain has a lot less to work with in this adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s novel; her character takes lots of drugs, flirts with Christopher Abbot (riffing his memorably sinister Possessor role to little effect here), and not much happens to her until an ironic but unsurprising climax in which she plays little part.

Weak female characters with zero agency are bad enough, but McDonagh’s unwillingness to characterise the Moroccan characters beyond surly servants and mute witnesses feels very old-fashioned and insensitive, even when telling a story about the dangers of cultural insensitivity. Like John Michael McDonagh’s others films (The Guard, Calvary, War on Everyone) there’s big ideas and ambition to burn, but for some reason, the result falls flat. Whatever casual magic seems to infuse his brother’s writing just can’t be conjured; The Forgiven wants to be profound, but the expression of ideas is lazy and uninspired, despite lavish presentation and a game cast.


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  1. Good review. Watching this film, I felt like I was being force-fed a big bowl or moral spinach, which is probably what attracted Chastain. I agree Fiennes does well with what there is of his role.

    • It’s hard to give a good performance in a bad film. You somehow have to take the same material that’s blowing up in everyone’s faces and make it stick. Fiennes manages it here; he’s been in a few lousy films, but you’re never far from a great performance. But a lecture on racism for a film where only the white characters have a voice is never likely to succeed. Chastain or not. IMHO.

  2. Found this a big disappointment. Trailer promised a lot more. But Appointment in Samarra sums it up and Chastain’s part is woefully underwritten. There surely can’t be any debate any more about how consistently poor Matt Smith is.

  3. I haven’t seen him in much, but I do think Matt Smith is the weakest casting in The Crown – his Philip felt petulant and I didn’t feel like his love for the queen shined through.

    Cast Jessica Chastain and give her nothing to do!? Nuts!

    • I’m almost tempted to watch a bit of series 5 of the Crown, since the Diana story is arguably the most interesting, and certainly the most torrid episode in royal history since the abdication.

      Chas rain isn’t bad at all in this, but her character is absolutely thankless. All her scenes are a waste of time; it’s just not her story.

        • I might watch it backwards just to annoy you, starting with the last episode of series 5, and then working my way back to the first episode.

          • With the caveat that I haven’t started Season 5 yet, the earliest Crown is the best Crown. The closer we get to modern day, it seems to me to be less interesting. Diana is just too recognizable – with all due respect to all the actresses who have ever played her, I only ever see the acting. Young Queen, King, Margaret, and Charles allow me to fall much more into the story.

            • The BBC’s attempt to make royal family fans of us all makes me rather immune to the charms of the Crown, but it get the impression that they have to be less melodramatic with events the closer they get to now. Given the endless, blanket coverage the royals get here, I’ll probably just find something else to watch…

  4. Smith was good as the living embodiment of Skynet in Terminator: Genysis. Of course, he was on screen for all of 30 seconds or so, so maybe it doesn’t count.

  5. Just saw Matt Smith in a flick yesterday. Didn’t even know his name. But I recognized the face (of course) and was wondering where I’d seen him before.

    How does this work as a sequel to Unforgiven? Does Clint have a cameo?

    • You saw him in Morbius! And if we admit that as evidence, it’s case closed! The prosecution rests.

      No Clint here, just lots of coke and half remembered nippy conversations…

          • Yep. Barry Keoghan is one for me. Jared Leto is trending in that direction. I always have to ask how much of it is the actor’s fault though and how much he’s just picking a bunch of really bad roles.

            • I can see exactly how you might come to that conclusion. They all seem to delight in playing weird characters, frequently in awful films. Names that make you sigh when you’re watch the trailers.

      • Was he Dr.Who for a spell? Not sure on that, saw him in The Crown and now in the House of Dragons and I suppose you could make a case that there’s not much difference between Prince Philip and Daemon Targaryon so he’s doing Ok really.

        • Not seen either of these, but found him a resistible Dr Who. Eccleston, Pertwee and Baker nailed it!

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