×

Film Review: ‘The Forgiven’

South Africa's momentous Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues to evade the film treatment it deserves in Roland Joffé's drab message movie.

Director:
Roland Joffe
With:
Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana
Release Date:
Mar 9, 2018

Rated R  2 hours

It’s 20 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in South Africa, ending — and in other ways just beginning — a country’s most cathartic and story-rich period of reckoning with its violent history of racial segregation. Anyone who was there at the time will remember the startling, sometimes sick-making, power of the testimonies and apologies that emerged through its broadcast hearings: It was an emotional rinse cycle that no film on the subject, least of all one made principally by outsiders, has fully managed to convey. Following very much in the heavy footsteps of such well-meaning, miscast misfires as John Boorman’s “In My Country” and Tom Hooper’s “Red Dust,” Roland Joffé’s drab, vigourless “The Forgiven” at least gives the Commission’s heroic chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his due by placing him front and center in its history — though it’s debatable whether Forest Whitaker’s glazed impersonation should be considered an honour.

Instead, it’s Eric Bana, cast as a fictionalized composite of various white-supremacist apartheid criminals, who comes closest to electrifying proceedings in what’s at heart a one-room two-hander, unconvincingly padded and populated for the big screen. Joffé and Scottish playwright Michael Ashton’s screenplay is drawn from the latter’s play “The Archbishop and the Antichrist,” which imagined a one-on-one confrontation between Tutu and defiantly racist convicted murderer Piet Blomfeld at Cape Town’s notoriously brutal Pollsmoor Prison. Their interactions amount to a hostile game of psychological cat-and-mouse, as the two men push and pull toward an ugly truth regarding a buried hate crime — both knowing that reconciliation, much less amnesty, is probably not in Blomfeld’s future.

Their scenes together are far the film’s most urgent and propulsive: It’s easy to see how this material, for all its contrivances and historical blurring, might have proved galvanizing on stage. Unfortunately, in opening out the drama beyond the prison, Joffé and Ashton have added little of equivalent force. Instead, the play’s moral and theoretical core is padded out — to a slack two hours — with vague conspiracy-thriller trappings, as Tutu’s interrogation of Blomfeld expands into a larger investigation of a (fictional, if fact-inspired) apartheid police plot, dubbed Operation Hacksaw, responsible for the disappearance of a black teenager.

The grief of the missing child’s mother is piercingly played by Thandi Makhubele, giving the film its most unfiltered stab of feeling, but refashioning a real-life Nobel laureate and theologian into a kind of politically conscious gumshoe rings distinctly false. Meanwhile, a separate strand of Tutu-free tension involving gang violence at Pollsmoor packs a few bloody jolts, but appears to have drifted in from another movie. None of this is helped by mealy dialogue that, while occasionally dipping into the mixed stew of South Africa’s many official languages, too often opts for Hallmark English as its default. “I’m afraid you’ll think these are just white tears,” says the sorrowful wife of one apartheid criminal to Tutu. His reply, inevitable as it is, still earns a full-body cringe: “I think tears have no color.”

Even the most assured performance would struggle under the drippy weight of such words, and Whitaker’s is frequently less than assured. Saddled with a distracting prosthetic schnoz that makes him resemble a newspaper cartoonist’s version of Tutu more than the man himself, the actor often appears stranded between his subject’s signature twinkly mirthfulness and the script’s more portentous demands — while his erratic Anglo-African delivery comes little closer to evoking Tutu’s distinctive, deliberate cadences than if he’d performed the whole thing in a Southern drawl.

Playing an Afrikaans-accented monster as intellectually lucid as he is seethingly dangerous, Bana may have the easier, flashier assignment, but he still compellingly finds the devil in the details of posture, modulation and gaze. Frustrated South African audiences in particular will continue to raise the question of whether such international star casting really does vital indigenous stories many favors — not least when “The Forgiven’s” commercial prospects in any region remain muted at best — but Bana makes a stronger case for outreach than his august co-star. The same argument, of course, may be made of filmmakers: Joffé may direct “The Forgiven” with dutiful integrity, but as with the aforementioned “Red Dust” and “In My Country” (the latter a wasteful bastardization of Antjie Krog’s “Country of My Skull,” the defining literary text of the Commission), the result lacks the earthy, land-planted conviction that even such an imperfect film on the subject as South African helmer Ian Gabriel’s 2004 “Forgiveness” had in its favor.

Needless to say, the formal muscle and gusto of “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” is some way behind Joffé: Beyond one heart-quickening prison-riot set piece, “The Forgiven” is steered with the kind of compassionate, cautious professionalism that tends to manifest itself on screen in tasteful neutrals: William Wages’ digital lensing is awash in browns and tans of every non-description. Would that such reserve had extended to a dubious closing-credits ballad tremulously sung by Toni Braxton, the profoundly banal lyrics of which (“They say the hardest thing to do/Is to love somebody who/Doesn’t love you”) are carefully written to connote either fractious healing after centuries of systemic racial hatred or, for more radio-friendly purposes, a star-crossed love affair with a difficult man. It’s a calculated ambiguity that says much about this potentially incendiary film’s bland punch-pulling.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Forgiven'

Reviewed online, March 5, 2018. (In London Film Festival — Debate.) Running time: 120 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Saban Films presentation of a BMP Inc., Light and Dark Films production in association with The Fyzz Family, Jeff Rice Films, LB Entertainment. (International sales: 13 Films, Los Angeles.) Producers: Craig Baumgarten, Zaheer Goodman-Bhyat, Roland Joffé. Executive producers: John Sherman, Robert Gough, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Maxime Cottray, Kim Ashton, Jeff Rice, Lee Broda, Christos Michaels, Tannaz Anisi, Gregory R. Schenz, Michael F. Tadross, William V. Bromiley, Ness Saban, Shanan Becker.

Crew: Director: Roland Joffé. Screenplay: Joffé, Michael Ashton, based on Ashton's play "The Archbishop and the Antichrist." Camera (color): William Wages. Editor: Megan Gill. Music: Zethu Mashika.

With: Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana, Jeff Gum, Robert Gough, Debbie Sherman, Thandi Makhubele, Nandiphile Mbeshu, Zikhona Bali, Pamela Nomvete, Terry Norton, Osbert Solomons, Morne Visser. (English, Afrikaans dialogue)

More Film

  • Visions du Réel Reimagined as Digital

    Switzerland's Visions du Réel Reimagined as Digital Only Event

    Visions du Réel, a film festival in Nyon, Switzerland, has changed the format of its next edition to accommodate the restrictions imposed by the Swiss government in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Originally planned to run from April 24 to May 2, the festival will now be a digital-only event held over a longer period, [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Announces Dues Extension Program for Members During Coronavirus Pandemic

    SAG-AFTRA has developed a program to provide dues relief for SAG-AFTRA members during the Covid-19 pandemic with an extension of the May 1 deadline. “Members experiencing financial hardship resulting from work stoppages related to Covid-19 will be granted a due date extension and an installment plan for those payments,” the union said. “As part of [...]

  • Studio Babelsberg

    Terminated 'Matrix 4,' 'Uncharted' Film Crews Demand Help From Studio Babelsberg

    Germany’s Studio Babelsberg is seeking to find a settlement with hundreds of film crew members following the shutdown earlier this month of Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix 4” and Sony Pictures’ “Uncharted” amid the coronavirus outbreak. The production stop has left many independent film crew members without pay and more than 300 have formed a working [...]

  • Empty movie theater

    Theater Owners Create $2.4 Million Fund for Cinema Workers

    The National Association of Theatre Owners and the Pioneers Assistance Fund have created an initial $2.4 million fund to provide financial assistance to movie theater employees who need help due to the coronavirus pandemic. The organizations said Monday that the first part of the initiative is a grant program that will provide a stipend to [...]

  • Bob Chapek Bob Iger Disney

    Bob Iger to Give Up Salary, Other Senior Disney Executives to Take Pay Cuts

    Disney has joined the list of companies implementing sizable pay cuts for senior executives amid the upheaval caused by the coronavirus crisis. Bob Iger, who shifted from chairman-CEO to executive chairman last month, has opted to forgo his salary for the year. Bob Chapek, who succeeded Iger as CEO, has taken a 50% pay cut. [...]

  • Sundance Horror Movie 'Relic' Picked Up

    Sundance Horror Movie 'Relic,' Starring Emily Mortimer, Picked Up By Film Constellation

    London-based production, finance and sales company Film Constellation has boarded the critically-lauded “Relic,” the debut feature from Natalie Erika James. The film, which stars Emily Mortimer (“Shutter Island”), Robyn Nevin (“The Matrix Trilogy”) and Bella Heathcote (“The Neon Demon”), had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight section. The film, which [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content