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27 August 2022

The Forgiven is a tough and unrelenting film noir

Starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, this film has been both critically admired and rounded on as a repellent display of toxic white privilege.

By David Sexton

Lawrence Osborne has had an unusually shaped career as a novelist. Born in 1958, he published his first two novels in 1986 and 1990, but then not another for 22 years. Meanwhile, leading an almost nomadic life, he published a great deal of long-form journalism and travel writing, including books about expat life in Bangkok, “sexual pessimism”, and drinking his way round dry Islamic countries.

The Forgiven, a tale about an English couple in trouble in Morocco, appeared in 2012 and a series of brilliant novels about Westerners losing their moorings in countries and cultures they don’t understand has followed. Hunters in the Dark in 2015 was about a young Englishman coming to grief in Cambodia, a land haunted by its past; Beautiful Animals in 2017 was about naïve, privileged girls in the Greek island of Hydra calamitously adopting a young Syrian migrant whose Islamic certainties give him utter disdain for unbelievers. Osborne is pitiless about the uncomprehending presumptions of Westerners facing harsher cultures, but he is equally unyielding about, for example, the contempt felt for them by those living by those different values. As a novelist, he is not afraid of representing other identities then. Rather, it’s his forte.

Now several of his novels are being brought to the screen. The first of them, The Forgiven, is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the older brother of Martin McDonagh. John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature was the glorious The Guard in 2011, a comedy starring Brendan Gleeson as an apparently racist Irish cop who turns out to have rare integrity, still the most successful independent Irish film to date. Calvary, also with Gleeson, proved more awkward, and, in 2016, War On Everyone, celebrating a pair of corrupt, abusive cops (Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård) in New Mexico was not well received.

[See also: The Rings of Power is bold, beautiful, thrilling television]

So Osborne and McDonagh are both provocateurs, committed to digging deep into zones of discomfort – and the result of their collaboration, The Forgiven, certainly achieves that. Since it premiered at Toronto last year, it’s been both critically admired and rounded on as just a repellent display of toxic white privilege.

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A bickering couple, the Henningers, married for 12 years, arrive in Morocco to attend a decadent weekend party being held at a restored ksour (castle) deep in the desert by a wealthy friend. David (Ralph Fiennes, one of his greatest performances) is a society doctor whose career has recently been disrupted by a negligence case. He’s scornful, confrontational, embittered and alcoholic, insisting “I’ve always thought the high-functioning part should cancel out the alcoholic part”. His younger wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) a children’s writer who has not written a new book for years, is disaffected with David’s anger and deliberate offensiveness, hating it when he tells her, for example, that she is being stared at by locals because: “They treat their women like donkeys. For them, you are an escaped donkey.”

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Despite having drunk a bottle of wine, David insists on undertaking the long drive to the party, getting lost in the dark, driving recklessly, wearing an affected pair of gloves to go with his polished brogues. Suddenly, at a remote location, a Berber youth steps into the road, apparently trying to sell one of the fossils that provide a bare subsistence living here. David doesn’t stop, knocks the boy down and kills him. His response is to discard the boy’s identity card and carry on to the party with his body in the hire car. The boy is a nobody, he says. Their host at the party, Richard (charismatic Matt Smith) arranges for the local police chief to declare the death accidental but, the next day, the boy’s father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) turns up to insist that David accompany him back to his remote village for the boy’s burial. Meanwhile the party continues, lavish, druggy and drunk, the local culture gleefully appropriated.

The Forgiven is film noir, tough and unrelenting, making no effort to charm (“I’ve got everything against likeable characters”, said Osborne once). It is superbly acted, particularly by Fiennes, and makes effective use of these extreme landscapes, including their silence – and, while it tactfully eliminates some of Osborne’s alarming insights as narrator into the minds of both sides of this confrontation, it spares no one. At nearly two hours, it’s longer than it needs to be but remains compelling film-making nonetheless. If filmmakers are still allowed to portray otherness, that is.

[See also: House of the Dragon: sex, violence and top notes of incest]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine