Review: Waiting for the Barbarians

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Story: A Magistrate working in a distant outpost begins to question his loyalty to the Empire and his country when a colonel begins torturing members of a nomadic tribe. 

Review: I wouldn’t debate anyone who said that J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Waiting for the Barbarians” was an “unfilmable” story. While the examinations of vicious colonialism and men in power’s brutality towards whomever they view as an “other” will probably never not be timely, and with several talented actors getting to step into some interesting characters, Ciro Guerra’s film adaption never reaches a thematic or visceral level that proves why this story was meant to leap off the page and onto the screen.

With Coetzee’s adapting his work for the screen, the story takes us to a nameless desert outpost in a nameless part of the world, where a nameless Magistrate (Mark Rylance) has lived for so many years he would “feel like a foreigner” if he ever went home. But enter a sunglass-clad Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) who is there to investigate rumblings that a “barbarian” army is supposedly planning to attack, threatening their hold on the “Empire”. Joll goes about getting answers from humble nomadic peoples using his barbaric ways, leading the Magistrate to dig his heels into his more idealistic nature and do what he can to help the men and women Joll abuses.

But this isn’t the kind of story where the hopeful triumph over the villains, making for a gripping movie experience with a touch of inspiration. It’s a heavy story that examines themes of duty, morality, cyclical violence, xenophobia, colonialism and much more that makes for a compelling political story on any kind of page. But while the complexity of the characters’ actions is prime for analysis, the events themselves have no cinematic flair that I can see keeping an audience engaged from beat to beat. While the escalating tension and shifting power plays no doubt feel right at home in a novel, the fact that so many of the key moments and character interactions are so small – and almost blunt – means that Guerra was always doomed to fight an uphill battle in trying to make it all thematic and worth watching.

Whether it’s a conversation between the seedy Joll and Magistrate or the former torturing people in public, everything is either gently tense or gently brutal. It’s like there was a fear around trying to give scenes a bit of personality or the pacing a bit of energy. While avoiding a level of Hollywood-ifying is admirable, the trade-off is it’s hard to stay invested in what’s going on, even though nothing feels wasted or out of place. There’s not one, but two scenes where Magistrate is washing/healing the broken feet of a woman who was tortured (Gana Bayarsaikhan), only to nod off while doing it. If the movie were to ever hit its vibe right on the nail, those are the moments. But even for some of the more visceral moments – such as a sandstorm or the Magistrate being tortured himself – there’s a pervading bluntness to how it’s portrayed as if simply seeing it should be enough to be effective. For some, it will be, and for me, it mostly was, given how the sheer sight of some of the more violent scenes. But for many, I can assume they’ll check out before the first half of the movie is over, which is an ultimate failure if the intent is to draw new minds to Coetzee’s work.

To Guerra’s credit, his movie is very well-made on a technical level. Working with the various set and production designers and cinematographer Chris Menges, the look and feel of the fort itself and the harsh, flat desert landscape avoids flashiness to feel more realistic – like this could be happening in any number of places around the world. Subtlety is the name of the much of the game here, including in the presentation of the characters and how the talented trio of actors bring them to life.

Rylance is the perfect choice for the Magistrate, a humble man with an understated sense of idealism, and who’s been so deeply rooted in the community he can’t help but see beyond what duty he has for the “Empire” and fight back against obvious treachery from his peers. He – like the movie as a whole – is very quiet and matter-of-fact, never doing anything too quickly or without purpose. Sadly, fans of the ever-increasingly impressive Robert Pattinson will have to wait until the final act of this one, and even then, the sheer miles he’s able to get out of his interesting, conflicted character will leave a lot more screen time to be desired. Because he can never do anything ordinarily, Depp will most likely keep your eyes most peeled here. Almost always donning a pair of old-timey sunglasses that make him either the perfect European villain, an 80s pop star or a less amiable Jean Reno in THE PROFESSIONAL, Depp’s Joll has a low-key sinister vibe that’s undeniably captivating.

One of the laws of nature is that if a book is popular, it must eventually become a movie or show. That’s the rule, and it’s really hard to accept it when it’s as unnecessary as WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS. The story itself is tailormade for a compelling novel, and that’s not lost in the script itself. Even for the performers, there’s much to dig into – if some more than most. But nothing about the execution here validates it being brought to life on the screen. Little will command your attention and keep it, and as ably made as it all is, it’s only major victory is letting previously unaware people that the book exists and is probably pretty good.


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