The Forgiven review | Ralph Fiennes’ road trip from hell

John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven is a biting satire about privilege, culture and atonement, all with a boozy edge. 

the forgiven ralph fiennes


It’s rare to see a proper adult drama or thriller in cinemas anymore. Everything seems to either include superheroes or feature Idris Elba punching a lion, but you rarely get A-listers starring in thoughtful, mature character dramas. 

The Forgiven is one of those films and it’s a treat. Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play a married couple on holiday in Morocco. David (Fiennes) is a functioning alcoholic while his wife Jo (Chastain) is an unhappy children’s book author. They’re driving to their friend Richard’s house in the desert for a lavish party, but their trip turns into a nightmare as they accidentally hit a young boy with their car, killing him. 

The boy’s father demands David travels with them to their village to witness the funeral, as a way of atoning for what he has done. It’s customary, David is told. He reluctantly gets in the car, while Jo is left behind and has some much needed alone time for once. Both are forced to examine their life and choices that have led them there. 

the forgiven jessica chastain

The Forgiven seems like it might be quite talky, dry and heavy but, at times, it’s one of the most thrilling films of the year. This is mostly thanks to the brilliant cast, especially Ralph Fiennes who plays David with just enough contempt and hatred to make him a compelling main character to hate. 

No one comes across particularly well in The Forgiven. John Michael McDonagh’s film isn’t quite as sharp with its ‘Eat the rich!’ ideas as Parasite was, but it’s always fun to see rich, white people act like fools and appropriately be punished for their actions. Unfortunately, The Forgiven is let down by the lack of focus and shoddy direction. 

Fiennes, as said, is brilliant, and so is Jessica Chastain. Her role is smaller and Jo isn’t quite as developed as she could have been; there was room to explore more of her relationship with David as well as her freedom once David leaves. She engages in flirtation and later in sex with a handsome stranger, played by indie favourite Christopher Abbott, and the audience can live vicariously through her. 

Adapted from a book by Lawrence Osborne, The Forgiven occasionally struggles to find the right balance in its tone. It at once wants to be a heartfelt drama about guilt, justice and atonement but it also wants to expose how privileged people take advantage of their wealth and status to get away with anything. The film’s treatment of race and culture is muddled at best; it’s never outright offensive, but it tries to turn a blind eye to the racial tensions by simply ignoring them for the most part. 

the forgiven christopher abbott

The two narratives – David’s road trip to redemption and Jo’s exploration of freedom – don’t always mix satisfyingly. Towards the end, The Forgiven starts to lose its steam and outstay its welcome. This is a 100-minute film at most, needlessly stretched to 117 minutes. 17 minutes doesn’t seem that long until you have to sit through it. 

The Forgiven is a mature drama that will have you on the edge of your seat as David has to face the consequences of his actions. While McDonagh’s direction is flawed – the pacing and tone are often all over the place – there is much to enjoy in The Forgiven, mostly the performances. 

THE FORGIVEN is released in cinemas on 2 September

Leave a Reply

More like this