In an unnamed desert country, The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) oversees a colonial outpost. He’s a decent enough person who tries to be fair to the people whose land his country (also unnamed) is occupying, and even takes an interest in its history, spending his spare time as an amateur archaeologist. There’s a problem, though—his individual actions, righteous as they may be, are ultimately in the service of colonialism, raising the question whether anyone can claim to be virtuous while working for so monstrous an evil.
That’s the question at the heart of Waiting for the Barbarians, based on the novel by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, who also wrote the screenplay. Unfortunately, it’s a topic better suited to literature than to film, and while the film of Waiting for the Barbarians has a lot going for it, it’s ultimately more inert than involving or fascinating. The course of the story is fairly predictable, and you’ll have no problem working out who the real barbarians are.
Waiting for the Barbarians is definitely not a film for people who like lots of action—instead, its dominant feeling is one of stillness, with occasional bursts of horror, including torture and executions (more so toward the end of the film, when I was tempted more than once to turn away from the screen and mute the sound). The lack of specificity serves the film’s key argument, that colonialism itself is corrupting, independent of any details about how it is executed in this or that location or time period. Above all, it’s a beautiful film that would benefit from being seen in a theatre (assuming they ever open again), on the largest possible screen.
Columbian director Ciro Guerra demonstrated in Birds of Passage that he has a real gift for creating striking visuals, and cinematographer Chris Menges (winner of two Oscars, for The Mission and The Killing Fields) captures both the desolation and splendor of the Moroccan landscape. Costumes by Carlo Poggioli clearly differentiate Ryland’s character from the others with whom he serves, as well as from the native people victimized by the colonial regime, the production design by Crispian Sallis and Domenico Sica create a setting that is clearly colonial, but belonging to no particular empire, and the music by Giampiero Ambrosi is effective.
The big name in the cast of Waiting for the Barbarians is Johnny Depp, but his character, Colonel Joll, doesn’t do much besides ride in a carriage, wear really weird sunglasses and maintain a facial expression suggesting he’s had way too many Botox injections. Robert Pattinson does better as the vicious Officer Mandel, as does Harry Melling (yes, Dudley Dursley himself) as one of the young soldiers serving at the outpost. Gana Bayarsaikhan does well by underplaying her part as “The Girl,” one of the natives tortured and blinded by the colonists, then returned to her people by The Magistrate. This is really Rylance’s movie, however, and he demonstrates once again how much a great actor can convey about a character while seeming to do virtually nothing at all. | Sarah Boslaugh
Waiting for the Barbarians is distributed by Samuel Goldwym Films and is available for viewing by a variety of VOD services.