The Forgiven John McDonagh (2021; UK) Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Ishmael Kanater
viewed Tyneside Cinema 6th Sept 2022; ticket £6
The current viewing ‘blockbusters’ are all of course to be found on TV in the form of multi-episode series. (I’m just watching one called ‘The Capture’ on BBC) They come in different flavours: fantasy, procedural/forensic, period/family, but they all share some common structural features. Their plots, with their multi faceted subplots, are based on a design analogous to circuit board diagrams where the current can be routed through different sections of the narrative; and also by way of the same analogy the critical function of the acting is to take on the roles of the sort of components found on printed circuit boards: resistors, capacitors, inductors, transistors etc the players thereby facilitating the connections between the different sections of the board, ie the subplots/digressions. The editing of these productions routes the action/the energy from one circuit to another, from plot to subplot and back again. In the completed final production of these episodic TV series the narrative line is driven by the editing device of cutting between a number of of parallel sequences built into the plotting. The effect of this ‘switchback’ editing is to create a product based on the dynamic of suspense. Each cut from one sequence to another leaves the outgoing situation with unfinished business, engendering suspense in the viewer. As the action switches continuously from setting to setting so the audience is manipulated into continuous states of suspension.
The consequence of this design is that these types of production are structurally grounded in ‘suspense’ mechanisms rather than ‘intensity’ of relations play out. Hence for the script to work the acting needs to be more or less mechanical rather than organic, as the purpose of the acting is to function as part of the ‘circuit board’ rather than to play out the expressive imperatives of emotionally internalised drives. The acting in these dramas is about ‘role’ playing rather than internalised expressive character formation, which would not only be a waste of time, but would potentially interfere with the energy flow chart of the circuits.
Which brings me to John McDonagh’s ‘The Forgiven’. The film’s script/edit is structured on the TV series plot premise: continual intercutting strategy between the two parallel story lines. John McDonagh in using this script design flags his intention to aim no higher than small screen ambition, perhaps anticipating that TV is the audience for his movie. In theory the big screen format allows writers and directors to opportunity to explore and probe the limits of intensity ambiguity intention by the characters who stay with and within the flow of the relations established by the scripting. But John McDonagh has chosen to go with the logic of the circuit board.
‘The Forgiven’ is set in Morocco. The setting of one section of the film takes place at a week-end long party in the Saharan palace of a wealthy Western couple. As the party goers cavort in front of the omnipresent all-seeing Moroccan servants the filming of this event shows the shameless behaviour of these wealthy Westerners. The script calls out the revellers core racism, their hypocrisy, their amorality, their insensitivity, their ability buy anyone or anything in a society subjugated to the service economy. In fact in itself, as a documented record without any pay off, the party’s laboured theme seems a mite overworked, saying the same things over and over again. But with a ‘bit of a fling’ scripted between David’s wife and a randy financial advisor, it’s all grist to mill of the lens and makes for a colourful if repetitive spectacle.
The heart of ‘The Forgiven’s’ script is the ‘relationship’ or perhaps ‘interaction’ is the better word between David and Abdellah, the father of Driss whom David has run over and killed on his way to the party party. Within this relational context the themes exploited in the party section might well have been the better and the more appropriately distilled, expanded, exposed by a script that chose to focus on probing intensities. But McDonagh has chosen to bypass intensity preferring to exploit and manipulate suspense as a mechanism. ‘The Forgiven’ is structured as a series of intersplicings between the party party and David’s journey with Abdella, taking Driss’ corpse back to the desert home. ‘The Forgiven’ with the predictability of a metronome cuts back and forth between David and Abdellah and the party party back at the Palace. The timing of the intercuts between the two settings, reduces the David/Abdellah relationship to spectacle, in as much as instead of the script holding and developing the tension points between the two men at the moments of heightened expectation, we suddenly cut back to “party party, the ritzy dance music the champagne and the excited sexy girls enjoying themselves. By the time McDonagh eventually cuts back to David and Abdullah, they’re onto another track. No tension develops, and we’re left with a couple of actors who often look like they’re waiting for the director to say: “Cut!” The players reduced to functioning as the nodes on a circuit board, enablers of the plot’s direction. The two male players are particularly dead, fed the appropriately tagged lines and most of the time looking bored with the mono-expressive diktat issued to them.
A couple of more points:
The credits are a mess. Normally you get opening credits shot against some simple background: the money, the stars, production, direction. Then the opening shot. McDonagh slaps all the credits major and minor over his opening sequence without the sensitivity of how to effectively blend captions with or over shot. The result is the the film begins as a horrible visual mess in which the audience can see neither the shot or the credits as interposed they interfere with each other, neither image not text being ‘readable’.
‘The Forgiven’ sets great store by the externalised filmic authenticity of the production. The Moroccan music, the Arabic captions, the aphorisms, all built into the ‘The Forgiven’ as if it wants to give out signage that it formally distances itself and excuses itself honourably from its own critique of Western arrogance. The problem is that instead of introducing within the film the voice of a dissenting character which would lend the critique a degree of subjective intensity, the Moroccan ‘devices’ are simply subsumed into the structure of ‘The Forgiven’ and become just another facet of spectacle.