What turns out to be a kind of parable dotted with real-life people and events is elevated by Bana's terrific performance. The Forgiven is framed as a kind of courtroom drama/murder mystery, with Tutu as the unlikely detective. That narrative device is a bit thin; we're not exactly following clues. And an extensive disclaimer admits that many facts and characters have been altered for dramatic purposes, so the film can't be taken as a reliable historical record. So it's best to think of it as a big-question drama: What is forgiveness, really? Is it healthy? Is it even possible? Can people really find it in themselves to forgive someone who brutally murdered their loved one? Can the murderer ever gain some semblance of redemption?
Whitaker had been attached to the film adaptation of Michael Ashton's play The Archbishop and the Antichrist, for years, and you can see why he'd want the part. Nobel laureate Tutu is a fascinating figure, a man of radiant humanity sifting through the wreckage of inhuman behavior. Whitaker achieves a fair approximation of Tutu's look and mannerisms, but, like the rest of the film, is at his best when Bana's Blomfeld is on screen with him. Bana is electrifying as the unrepentant, racist murderer, who quotes Milton's Paradise Lost and Plato one moment and then advocates for a full-on race war the next. Bana has a mighty task before him: to make us think his hate alone could sway Tutu. The actor just about pulls it off, especially as the effect of his powerful scenes adds up. Bana is best known as a root-for-him good guy (Troy, Black Hawk Down), but he's played intimidating thugs before, quite impressively (Chopper). Here, he pairs an imposing physical presence with a complex snake pit of a mind. Director Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) is a veteran of tales examining oppressive regimes, and apart from a few missteps in the film's first minutes, he generally succeeds in making the horrors of apartheid land. The takeaways from The Forgiven will surely be its big questions -- and Bana's performance. When one of the guards doesn't know Paradise Lost, Blomfeld barks, "It's a poem -- about me!" For those who may not recall, the most memorable character in Milton's classic is Satan.