I keep my eye on Jessica Chastain having admired particularly her acting dexterity in “The Help” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), “Molly’s Game” (2017), and “The Eyes Of Tammy Faye” (2021). Her film bio lists many more titles including “The Forgiven” (theatres) where again the actress certainly impresses in a role that adds substance to her scenes. The actress won her first Oscar this year, appearing as the title televangelist in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
She and Ralph Fiennes are David and Jo Henninger, wealthy Westerners who head to Morocco, flaunting their high standing among the local Muslim population living in desert huts. The natives scrape out a meager existence selling fossils dug up from the sand.
The couple has been invited to a high falootin’ shindig by long-time acquaintance Richard Galloway (Matt Smith), whose “modest home is a luxurious villa out in the sun-splashed Sahara shared with his boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). David is an English physician with adaptable morals, and Jo, his American wife, is a children’s book author who hasn’t touched a laptop in a number of years. She enjoys a party atmosphere where she’s lets down her hair. It’s quite evident the miserably happy couple plays fast and loose with their marriage and the moral laws of society.
A faithful fan of the bottle, David is under the influence driving through the desert night, chattering with Jo and paying only passing attention to the road ahead. A young Arab boy suddenly darts across the road and is hit by David’s car. The fatality is naturally a tragedy, but for David and Jo, it’s more of an annoying incident that will delay their appearance at the party.
Their intent was to hide the incident, act remorseful, and with a boost by the local police (they are after all, rich tourists), the fatal incident would be pushed to the background. Unexpectedly, the boy’s father requests David visit their home village, some days journey, to attend the burial of his boy, indicating some native penance as a means of justice. Though reluctant, David follows through assuming he will be forgiven.
Here writer/director John Michael McDonagh takes viewers along a road that splits in two directions dealing with morality and white privilege, issues that are disordered, yet engrossing. One leads David to the village, where he is surrounded by a culture totally alien to him. The other road returns Jo to Richard’s party, and more to her liking joining the rich whites drinking, indulging in sexual athletics while snorting coke. To the dirt-poor Arab community this re-enforces the arrogant attitude of the westerners, living lives of excess, and an uncaring attitude felt by the Arab community.
At the heart of this Moroccan morality tale, a suggestion of a colonial mentality in a post-colonial world is evident. Ralph Fiennes is splendid as David who becomes aware of his own moral deficits, while Jessica Chastain, though with less onscreen time, shows Jo sinking into her amoral abyss. Together, they convey the dramatic power of the narrative that humanity never fully disappears, but is rather repressed.
The acting buddies starred together in the 2011 film “Coriolanus,” based on Shakespeare’s tragedy and were delighted to reunite on this project..A caustic wave permeates the narrative with suspense, a moral substructure (Arab anathema to gay sex) and cultural commentary from conflicted characters.
Shooting the fim in Morocco was stimulating for Fiennes. He adds,”You’re in that heat, you’re in that light. You’ve got the grit of the sand in your eye. You just behave differently. You behave just as you would in the place.”
The country has not had a starring role since “Road To Morocco,” the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby musical comedy film of yesteryear.