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.