Waiting For The Barbarians

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Waiting For The Barbarians
"Rylance is superb throughout in a role perfectly suited to his talents." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

The first thought many viewers will have upon seeing Ciro Guerra's adaptation of Waiting For The Barbarians is that it's strikingly old fashioned. Broad desert vistas, scurrying extras in the middle distance, crucial meetings framed as if on a stage, a muted colour palette and a score that takes its time to build. It harks back to the epics of the Fifties and Sixties - but when better to tell this story than now? As the poison at the heart of empire finally becomes apparent to the general population in the places where it began, JM Coetzee's tale resonates more strongly than ever.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the author, who wrote the screenplay himself, has reshaped it in some ways, giving it more definite form. Whilst one key relationship is less explicit than it was in the book, there is a surer sense here of finality - no more the cycle that goes on and on as it has in the past. As the Magistrate (Mark Rylance), explains, this has consisted of periodic panics about the possibility of barbarian attacks on the frontier, followed by the dispatching of troops to deal with them, followed by a largely unnecessary show of force after which everything goes back to normal again. Normal, for him, involves settling disputes over misbehaving animals and providing the locals with medical support. But normality is fragile.

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Leading the troops this time is Colonel Joll, a monster of literature brought to not-quite-life by Johnny Depp, whose performance is so rigid that one half expects to see a Terminator-style red eye glinting behind the black sunglasses which fascinate and terrify the unaccustomed locals. Depp contributes little to the film beyond what is provided in the script, but functions adequately enough as a foil to the Magistrate and also contrasts interestingly with Robert Pattinson's Officer Mandel, whose more emotional nature feels like a relief until one sees how quickly it can turn into viciousness. Though his role is only small, Pattinson does a lot with it, the only person present who humanises the brutality of empire to any degree.

If the Magistrate is formally an agent of empire, he has clearly forgotten its nature, or done his best to turn his face away. Though he sits in a luxuriously appointed office whilst nomads with nowhere to sleep are thrown out of the town, he strives to be fair and kind wherever unfairness and cruelty are apparent to him. When Joll's people have had their fun torturing locals and the Colonel himself has departed, he takes in a young woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) whom they have left partially blinded and badly scarred. After some weeks in her company he decides, as if finally aware of her reluctance, to return her to her people. This is where the first of a series of hard lessons comes his way.

Rylance is superb throughout in a role perfectly suited to his talents, bearing upon his shoulders the loneliness and disappointment of half a dozen countries upon realising how little good they had done in the world for all their interference, and how little they were wanted. Though the woman describes him as a good man, this seems only to deplete further his capacity for meaningful action. Joll, at the other end of the scale, is doomed by his unerring belief in the superiority of that original vision. Only Mandel, who wastes no time on contemplation at all, seems to thrive - at least whilst wider events are going his way.

Old fashioned in style as it is, the film moves slowly, especially during the first half, and doubtless some viewers will struggle to engage with it. The deliberate drabness of much of the imagery will also deter some, though this is important in illustrating the Magistrate's emotional journey and the movement of history; it's no accident that cinematographer Chris Menges waits until the final shots to really bring out the beauty of the location. Melancholy and self-reflection may not be the easiest things to sell during a pandemic, but there's some fine work here and thoughtful film fans will appreciate it. If you enjoyed the book or other works of Coetzee's, this is well worth your time.

Reviewed on: 04 Aug 2020
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Waiting For The Barbarians packshot
A magistrate in a colonial town suffers a crisis of conscience about the regime he works for.

Director: Ciro Guerra

Writer: Ciro Guerra, based on the novel by JM Coetzee

Starring: Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Greta Scacchi, Sam Reid, Harry Melling, Mark Rylance, David Dencik, Bill Milner, David Moorst, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Joseph Long, Clem So, Wil Coban, Faical Elkihel, Nayef Rashed

Year: 2019

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: Italy, US


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