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New Release Review [Digital] - WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS

Waiting for the Barbarians review
The Magistrate of an imperial outpost questions his role upon the arrival of a cruel-minded Colonel.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Ciro Guerra

Starring: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Greta Scacchi

Waiting for the Barbarians poster





Anyone fancy a worthy two hour colonial drama featuring The Actor Mark Rylance and professional face puller Johnny Depp which is based upon a book by J.M. ‘Jim’ Coetze, a writer who is Taken Very Seriously? Thought not, but here we are. Set in an unspecified time during the early twentieth century in an unspecified Eastern location, Sir Mark Rylance plays the unnamed magistrate of an Empire outpost. The Magistrate is a gentle enough soul and a thoughtful and kind administrator of the town, which is peaceful and productive. Troubles begin when Colonel Joll (Depp) rocks up to the outpost. Joll is a right old prick, whose sole character definition is to cause division and brutality. He jails an old man and his sick nephew on jumped up charges of sheep stealing, with ulterior designs to aggravate the ‘barbarian’ populace of the desert (viz, the indigenous people) into war. The Magistrate is understandably nonplussed by Joll’s antics and thus begins the Manichean discourse of Waiting for the Barbarians.

Waiting for the Barbarians review

Presumably, the rationale behind Waiting for the Barbarians’ indeterminate loci is to generalise the situation: this could have been anywhere during the Empire’s brutal reign, with the cruelty depicted suggesting a common factor across imperialised territory. However, this approach causes the film’s first problem, in that the mise-en-scene - donkeys, dust, a bazaar of braced blankets - reduces the scenery to cliché, reinforcing the sort of lazy similitude the western mind conjures when this territory is mooted (think Raiders of the Lost Ark et al). For a film that has pretensions towards making dramatic mileage out of actual historical atrocity, the ambivalent approach almost immediately sequesters the events of the film within the realm of fable.

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Depp at least seems attuned to Waiting for the Barbarian’s resultant hyperbole and offers his usual pantomime execution. The small consolation of a Depp performance is giggling at the outlandish props he hides behind/utilises for his presentation: here it is an unlikely pair of sunglasses and a severe haircut which conspire to make him resemble none other than Major Arnold Toht (Raiders... again! Hmmm). Depp remains the most mannered actor continuing to get major work today, and his presence here is the same old energy (one can’t help feeling bad slagging off someone who seems such a decent lad: those YouTube videos of him dressed as Jack Sparrow visiting kids in hospital! But that’s part of the problem: whenever you watch him you cannot help but think of Depp the person, rather than whatever character he’s essaying).

Waiting for the Barbarians review


As stated earlier, Rylance is An Actor and he Acts throughout The Film. A dead giveaway of theatrical types featuring in movies is the delivery, where...WORDS...are ENUNCIATED...slowly but DELIBERATELY for the... cheap SEATS. Movie acting and theatrical performance are crucially different disciplines, but I think directors are too intimidated by the former artistic director of The Globe (and a man who actually had sex on camera once, fair play) to let Rylance know. And so...everyTHING...takes... TWICE...as LONG...to say... than it normally WOULD - to the extent that you wonder if the film is even playing at the correct speed.

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Joll causes upset in the outpost and moves on after imprisoning elderly ‘barbarians’ as POWs. The Magistrate releases them and, months later, comes across a rather comely beggar woman. The woman (referred to in the credits as ‘the girl’ and played by supermodel Gana Bayarsaikhan) is scarred about the eyes and has broken ankles. There begins a weird so-so love story with The Magistrate taking in the winsome vagrant. He tends to her, and makes sympathetic noises, and bathes her broken and bloody feet. At one point he passes out doing this, presumably in a sensual faint, but possibly because of the smell. It is odd that the ostensibly kindly Magistrate hasn’t taken in any other of the less attractive or male beggars, but then it is rich white men who are the choosers in this outpost. The Magistrate, however, does resolve to do the decent thing. He bundles up the girl on his horse and, braving the sandstorms of the desert, attempts to return her to her family. Problem is that when The Magistrate gets back to the fort, he discovers that Joll’s oppo (played by Robert Pattinson, who is as great as ever, given ample opportunity to indulge that silvery mean streak which galvanises his style) has placed himself in charge, which leads to further tensions within and without the outpost...

Waiting for the Barbarians review

For a movie filmed in south east Morocco, the Hollywood of Africa, Waiting for the Barbarians has no epic sweep, and is instead rather insular. Likewise, the potential complexities of the source novel (which are given scant lip service by the awesome Greta Scacchi, who turns up in a minor house help role) are comfortingly simplified here, too. There is a persistent strain of literature, typified by Coetze, which centralises the privileged white man, creating poetry from the anxieties and experiences of this potential saviour, whom such books assume to be central to any given culture. Waiting for the Barbarians is a perfunctory adaptation of this sort of fare, with little to contribute apart from the evident platitude that the subjugation of a people is probably a bad thing. It is ironic then that Waiting for the Barbarians marginalises the so-called savages of its title, preferring instead to focus on the broad play of its stars.

Waiting for the Barbarians is on UK Digital from September 7th.




2020 movie reviews