Review: Forest Whitaker stars as Desmond Tutu in slack political drama ‘The Forgiven’

Forest Whitaker portrays Archbishop Desmond Tutu during his time as head of post-apartheid South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in "The Forgiven."
(Saban Films)

Several powerful narratives vie for supremacy in the political drama “The Forgiven,” but this sluggishly paced film’s disparate parts never come together as a compelling whole.

Although director Roland Joffé, who co-wrote with Michael Ashton (based on Ashton’s play), attempts a mini-epic look at post-Apartheid South Africa circa 1996, the picture works best in its many highly charged, one-on-one face-offs.

The core of the story, which is “based on actual events,” is the fraught dynamic between Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker), then-head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), a convicted death squad assassin — and avowed racist — seeking clemency.

The compassionate Tutu may believe Blomfeld, imprisoned in suburban Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, is “savable.” But Blomfeld, surly, savage and unyielding, feels and acts otherwise. Tutu and Blomfeld’s confrontations have vigor and commitment but don’t build to the requisite catharsis.


Brutal gang and racial tensions within the prison take up much time here. These scenes are compelling but, like a third story strand involving a grieving mother (Thandi Makhubele) seeking justice for her daughter’s disappearance, can ultimately feel more tangential than organic.

Performances are uniformly strong with Whitaker’s Tutu an effective disappearing act, Bana’s Blomfeld a vivid monster, Jeff Gum quite good as a conflicted prison guard, and Makhubele heartbreaking in a climactic courtroom scene.


‘The Forgiven’

Rating: R, for disturbing/violent content, and language throughout including some sexual references

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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