Waiting for the Barbarians, 2020.
Directed by Ciro Guerra.
Starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Greta Scacchi, David Dencik, Sam Reid, Harry Melling, and Bill Milner.
A Magistrate working in a distant outpost begins to question his loyalty to the empire.
J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is already a novel intentionally vague on basic plot details such as time and location and names (the protagonist is known just as The Magistrate.) The film adaptation directed by Ciro Guerra (Birds of Passage) working from a screenplay by the author himself follows suit but also appears to be a streamlined version, meaning that now there might be too little characterization. Whatever the case may be, I was waiting for a spark more than anything watching the movie.
Mark Rylance is the magistrate of a desert settlement living in relative peace. That is until Johnny Depp’s Colonel Joll rides onto the scene essentially fear-mongering the locals into believing that the indigenous people of the land, the “barbarians”, are going to attack. These central performances are also some of the only elements of the film I can safely recommend in good conscience. There is a gentleness and kindness to The Magistrate that is so overflowing, it’s enough to make him a compelling character as he comes to terms with the fact that the soldiers are the ones to fear. Whether he’s caring for the wounded (part of the story involves him caring for and getting close to an indigenous woman) or the rare moments where he raises his voice and expresses some anger, there’s emotion on display that allows for partial investment into the narrative.
With an Oscar-winning cinematographer aboard in Chris Menges, it’s easy to say that Waiting for the Barbarians looks good, especially when characters set off into the desert traveling; viewers are treated to some truly beautiful vantage points of the vast landscape. There is also a sequence involving a sandstorm that is visually appealing. It’s also not only about the aesthetics, as Colonel Joll rocks as stylistic pair of sunglasses and even gets his own speech on why he does so.
The main stifling issue is that the execution of the story is plain stiff and reliant on limp dialogue (save for a disturbing justification Colonel Joll delivers about his torture methods and breaking people into revealing the truth). Body language from Mark Rylance and a menacing disposition from Johnny Depp can only go so far. Robert Pattinson also makes an appearance during the second half of the movie, and while he is fine for what he has been tasked to do, I also couldn’t really tell you what convinced him to take on such a small and forgettable role.
There are some tender moments between The Magistrate and The Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan) that lets us in on the severity of the abuse Colonel Joll is inflicting on these detained indigenous people without resorting to showing the extreme violence (although that is saved for a brief and effective segment towards the end.) Waiting for the Barbarians works best when it is focusing on the minimalistic brewing relationship between the two, and the acting, on the whole, is great across the board, but the film never elevates beyond that. The moral of the story is far too obvious and cut-and-dry leaving nothing to ponder afterward. It’s a film that’s easy to agree with and applaud for its craftsmanship, but often a chore to actually watch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com