Beneath the garishly brittle portrait of ghastly westerners lording it up in Morocco, there’s a low-key, brooding quality to this accomplished if somewhat inert screen adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 bestseller. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose screen CV includes The Guard (2011), Calvary (2014) and War on Everyone (2016), it’s an anxiously moralist tale of crime and punishment, revenge and resolution, played out against a broad-strokes, culture-clash backdrop that brings a tang of spiteful satire to the deeper discussions of good and evil.
“It’s a long way to go for a party, but then they’re more your friends than mine.” So says David (Ralph Fiennes), a British doctor with a blemished record whom we first meet aboard a boat to “l’Afrique” with his wife, Jo (Jessica Chastain, who co-starred with Fiennes in his 2011 Coriolanus). She’s an unproductive children’s author who has fallen from favour with her young readers – an audience she detests. He is a “highly functioning alcoholic”, a phrase he likens to a double negative, as if one cancels out the other.
They’re off to the ksour (“it means castle”) of Richard (a louche Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones, all pouting petulance) – a debauched party villa restored by the “little Moroccans” to whom the owners patronisingly profess to owe so much. But while driving drunk through the desert during a marital squabble, David hits and kills a young boy whose broken body is brought to the party. The boy’s name is Driss, but no one knows that – yet. For now, he is just “a nobody from a village far away”; someone whose death can be swept under the carpet as an unfortunate accident. David and Jo’s callous hosts seem to agree, reassuring their guests that all will be well with the authorities as long as they seem “overwhelmingly contrite”, something David agrees he can muster if “it’s absolutely necessary”.
Of course, Driss is not “nobody”. He has a father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), who arrives at the villa and announces that “the Englishman must pay” by accompanying him back to his remote village to bury his son. David initially bridles, fearing extortion or murder (“they might be fucking Isis”). Eventually he agrees to go, leaving Jo (who is pointedly reading André Gide’s The Immoralist) to fall into a casual dalliance with Christopher Abbott’s American financial analyst Tom, while her husband heads off towards either retribution or redemption.
There’s little subtle about the way The Forgiven lays out its thematic stall, from the blood that stains David’s driving gloves to the overloud use of the phrase “these people”, which peppers the dialogue. Yet despite running the risk of privileging its unlovable white characters, their stories are not the most gripping element of the drama. Look at the scene in which Abdellah and David discuss westerners’ pricey obsession with fossils, particularly those that resemble a demon falling from the sky; it is Kanater, rather than Fiennes, who dominates the screen, his expression vacillating nimbly being grief, rage, threat and despair. Similarly, the character of driver and translator Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui) is infinitely more developed than the gaggle of uppity American, French or British caricatures with which he is surrounded.
Having excelled in McDonagh’s brother Martin’s jet-black comedy In Bruges, Fiennes brings a touch of Leonard Rossiter’s Reggie Perrin to his portrayal of David, seeming to press his chin down on to his chest while simultaneously turning his nose up at the world. As for Chastain, she combines regality with a twinge of the unhinged (remember her Lady Macbeth-like turn in A Most Violent Year?), empathy and emptiness doing battle behind her ever-changing sunglasses.
Cinematographer Larry Smith juxtaposes bright widescreen vistas with the increasingly dark tone of the material, a contrast highlighted as David’s metaphysical journey is intercut with snorting revelries back at the villa. Meanwhile, Lorne Balfe’s sparsely used music leaves plenty of open spaces for the drama to breathe, as if inviting the audience to fill in the blanks with an internal accompaniment (tragic? Comedic? Ironic?) of their own choosing.