Superb acting, stilted drama.
Roland Joffe’s fictionalized drama concerning Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s early days as chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission reveals its theatrical origins all too obviously. Featuring excellent performances by Forest Whitaker as Tutu and Eric Bana as an imprisoned racist government death-squad assassin seeking clemency, The Forgiven tackles its important political and social issues in an overly talky fashion. The film has its merits, but it represents a significant comedown for the director of such classics as The Mission and The Killing Fields.
Based on Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist (the playwright collaborated on the screenplay with Joffe), the film begins with a 1955-set prologue depicting a horrific childhood experience involving one of the main characters. The setting then changes to the post-apartheid, mid-1990s after Tutu was appointed to his position by then-President Nelson Mandela.
When Tutu receives a highly articulate letter pleading for clemency while quoting Milton and Plato in the process, written by convicted murderer Piet Blomfeld (Bana, playing a fictional character), he becomes intrigued enough to visit the prisoner in his cell. There, the two men have the first of a series of intense back-and-forth conversations about issues relating to guilt and forgiveness that inevitably make The Forgiven feel stagy.
The stilted dialogue doesn’t help matters. While pondering whether or not to meet Blomfeld, Tutu is warned by a colleague, “He’s a psychopath and convicted killer.” The archbishop responds, “I know who he is. No one is beyond redemption.” And when Tutu finally does show up at the prison, Blomfeld smugly says, “I knew you would come, I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist,” sounding like Hannibal Lecter greeting Clarice.
To pad out the central storyline, the film includes several subplots. One involves a bereft mother (Thandi Makhubele, delivering a wrenching performance) who begs Tutu to help find her missing teenage daughter, possibly the victim of a government hit squad. This scenario has the unintentionally awkward effect of turning the archbishop into a sleuth, as if he were the central character in a crime procedural. The other depicts Blomfeld’s strenuous efforts to stay alive in a prison wracked by racial tensions, gang violence and corrupt guards, which has the feel of countless other prison dramas. The jumbled interweaving of the different plotlines has the effect of making the narrative confusing and the pacing sluggish, although the final courtroom scene, featuring a charged appearance by the distraught mother of the missing girl, packs an undeniable emotional punch.
Saddled with an unfortunately distracting prosthetic nose, Whitaker delivers a finely nuanced performance, conveying Tutu’s formidable inner strength and dignity as well as his compassion. Bana has the showier role and makes the most of it, using his impressive physicality and fierce charisma to make his despicable character suitably frightening but also very human.
Production companies: LB Entertainment, Light and Dark Films, Jeff Rice Films, BMP Inc., The Fyzz Facility
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana, Jeff Gum, Nandiphile Mbeshu, Osbert Solomons, Thandi Makhubele, Pamela Nomvete, Zikhona Bali, Terry Norton
Director: Roland Joffe
Screenwriter: Michael Ashton
Producers: Zaheer Goodman-Bhyat, Craig Baumgarten, Roland Joffe
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
Director of photography: William Wages
Production designer: Warren Gray
Editor: Megan Gill
Composer: Zethu Mashika
Casting: Susan Rossouw
Rated R, 120 minutes