He’s a boozy Chelsea society doctor, she’s a little-regarded children’s author. Their marriage could be in its death throes. What better idea to revive it than schlepping out to the Sahara for a weekend of partying with their ‘friends’, a filthy rich gay couple in show-off mode at their renovated fort. Unsurprisingly, it does not go well. Barrelling along barely signposted desert roads in the dark, they hit and kill an Arab boy who steps out to try and hawk them some fossils.
It’s a tiresome irritation for that struggling couple, the Henningers (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain), but they can always evade such scrapes with hard cash – until the bereaved father arrives at their destination and demands an act of contrition. Does Fiennes’s fiftysomething ex-public schoolboy have it in him to feel anything for the Berber family’s loss?
Adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s 2014 novel of the same name, this is evidently a story with literary influences, not least Paul Bowles’s ‘The Sheltering Sky’ (filmed to decorative, if somewhat empty effect by Bertolucci), where the bourgeoisie confront their empty souls in the blazing Sahara.
There’s no doubt the rich material here has a grisly fascination, its two-hour running time held together by the looming realisation the inscrutable Arab patriarch might be planning to extract a deadly payback. For writer-director John Michael McDonagh, though, the challenge is to find some useful moral wiggle room within the story's seemingly binary opposition between entitled moneyed whites and ill-fated desert tribespeople. If our minds are already made up that these wealthy interlopers are worthless scum then what keeps us watching?
If our minds are already made up that these wealthy interlopers are worthless scum then what keeps us watching?
Where McDonagh felt entirely at home in Ireland’s troubled landscape for The Guard and Calvary, his first two features, he’s not as at ease here. The vast landscapes are magnificent, yet the movie sags when we have to spend time with the relentlessly superficial revellers. Fiennes is absolutely on-the-mark as the flinty medic facing his own journey of self-discovery, yet he’s matched all the way by Ismael Kanater’s gnomically reflective Berber dad and Saïd Taghmaoui as his disarmingly amiable sidekick.
The Arab characters’ musings on their challenging lives are the heart of the movie, not bearing ill will against the absurdly fortunate Eurotrash, but judging everyone by how they deal with their individual circumstances. It’s absorbing fare, until we cut back to his wife and the hedonism, which is exasperatingly shallow by comparison.
A decidedly variable viewing experience then, and not everyone will have the patience for it. Yet some might eventually come round to McDonagh’s determination not to make the Henningers essentially decent folk worthy of redemption, which would just have been too, too easy.
Instead, The Forgiven takes the harder road, and actually proves more engrossing and haunting in retrospect than when you’re actually watching it. In an era of instant gratification, that, for all the film’s evident flaws, is still worth chin-stroking respect.
In UK cinemas Sep 2