The Forgiven is a story without heroes, a story of haves and have-nots. The audience follows David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain), an unhappy couple travelling deep into the Moroccan desert for a weekend of extravagance and indulgence at friend Richard Galloway’s (Matt Smith) holiday home. On the way, the Henninger’s car hits and kills a local boy – Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) – who was selling fossils by the roadside. These are people whose money has, for most of their life, allowed them to ignore the consequences –until Driss’ father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) demands his son’s killer travel to their home to perform burial rites. In this journey, can David find some empathy for those he perceives so differently?

The standout aspect of The Forgiven is in the performances. Fiennes and Chastain play a form of verbal sparring in every interaction, quick-witted and humorous to listen to. Smith is, as always, a shining star; he plays the role with both staggering arrogance and a hint of hidden sympathy. The grief in Kanater’s portrayal, meanwhile, is viscerally difficult to watch. With these talented actors at the helm, even the central characters’ cold vapidness is made somewhat more humane.

Courtesy of Vertical

John Michael McDonagh’s feature adaptation of the Lawrence Osborne novel is less a thriller than a well-executed dark comedy. The point isn’t Driss’ death, but the near-comedic binaries between the tourists’ unrestrained indulgence and the lived reality of Driss’ family. Scenes of binge drinking and recreational drug-taking are juxtaposed against the harsh desert landscape and the painfully empty bedroom of the deceased.

The Forgiven is also an intriguing character study. Both David and Jo go on internal journeys to find a ‘better’ version of themselves, a version they supposedly had but once lost – though their paths take them to incredibly different destinations. For David, it isn’t redemption or forgiveness for what has happened, but his acceptance of his role in the event and responsibilities. For Jo, it is stepping out from behind her husband’s boorish shadow and reconnecting with a part of herself she hid long ago.

The Forgiven could very well be analysed as an extension of the ‘white saviour’ trope. The telling of POC suffering through the eyes of a white character plays into modern film’s tendency to escort white people through their prejudices, so that they may have a ‘revelation’ about their place in the world and their treatment of others (often POCs). The Forgiven definitely leans into this and while no white person is saving anybody, there is no doubt about who the film wants you to be rooting for.

Courtesy of Vertical

Similarly, a significant part of David’s journey is seeing the humanity in people that he spent the beginning of the film othering: a stark example is how David first refers to Richard’s attendants as “slaves”, only to later ask one of the same attendants their name. This is the first time a name is given to this character, Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), despite his near-constant presence; though a clear show of character development for David, it is still a case of a Brown man’s identity being asserted only through a white man’s guilt.

And within all this, there is also the uneasy question of forgiveness, something which becomes prevalent by the end of the film. David asks Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui), “does Abdellah forgive me?”. It’s something that David desperately wants – though by this point, he has already accepted his responsibility and forgiven himself. Anouar cannot answer. As the audience, we know that whatever Anouar says will only serve to placate David’s guilt. Abdellah lost his only son to a white man’s reckless driving, and the carelessness with which David treated his body cannot possibly be forgiven. And beyond that, if these characters are intended to be representative of their respective social classes, how can forgiveness possibly be found? And if it was, what could it look like?

The Forgiven is an interesting, villain-led story of extremes, of two very different worlds colliding in the most horrific ways possible. The acting is as amazing as one would expect and, though the storyline has its thorns, it does well to make you ponder on the meaning and possibility of forgiveness when the hurt inflicted is too great, and who the act of forgiving is for – the victim or the perpetrator?

The Forgiven releases on VOD from July 15th.