When a film featuring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson is set to be quietly released on digital platforms, alarm bells start to ring. With the acclaimed Colombian director of Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra, behind the camera as well, it’s even more baffling that the movie hasn’t been unveiled to British audiences with a little more fanfare after its run on the festival circuit last year.
At least, it’s baffling until you watch the film – a plodding literary adaptation that never gets beyond an obvious allegory. If you’ve decided that the real barbarians were probably the white folk all along, you’re ahead of the movie already.
This is a movie about the difficulties of being the one good man in a world that prizes those who conquer and rule over those who love. The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) is that one good man, presiding with fairness and warmth over a small community on the fringes of an unspecified Empire, settling minor disputes like a desert-dwelling Judge Rinder. He’s all too aware that the settlement he runs shouldn’t be there and that he’s living on land stolen from the indigenous, Nomadic people who are now a source of constant paranoia – referred to as “barbarians”, readying themselves to strike at civilisation.
The quiet simplicity of Magistrate’s existence is broken by the arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) and his unconventional sunglasses. He has been sent to report on the supposedly growing barbarian threat and wastes no time in torturing a presumably nonsensical confession about a “great war” out of an indigenous person who had committed a minor theft. Joll is soon joined by his equally ruthless right-hand man (Robert Pattinson) as the Magistrate’s community is reshaped into a land of brutal and unjust violence.
This all unfolds in glacial style, with Rylance ambling about quietly in amiable confusion while Depp and Pattinson are lost in their own stilted and overly mannered performances. There’s a strange disconnect between the stark violence of this world and the methodical, understated filmmaking style. Even the most extreme acts of torture and brutality are depicted with mundane detachment – which is almost certainly the point – but it leaves the film lacking the sort of punch it needs. Rylance’s relationship with a blinded indigenous woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) is under-cooked in a way that makes it difficult to understand why the film spends so much time with it.
The 1980 novel by J. M. Coetzee, who has adapted his own work for the big screen, has a simple idea at its core. It’s about how those who remain silent about the evils of the colonialism from which they benefit are, ultimately, as complicit in the violence as those who wield the weapons themselves. Unless, of course, they actively attempt to effect change. This is a well-worn notion in cinema, particularly since the release of that novel and, once Frozen II is using a similar theme, you probably need to dig a little deeper.
Waiting for the Barbarians feels ponderous and toothless, trapped in old-fashioned thinking that lacks any sort of edge. The issues it tackles are evergreen, of course, but it’s precisely that which leaves them looking over-played and well-trodden. It’s an odd world of strangely-pitched performances, languorous plotting and a story that never really seems to be going anywhere. Given the decorated back catalogue of Guerra and his cast, it’s a deeply disappointing, soggy squib of a movie that has plenty to say – but nothing we haven’t heard before.
Dir: Ciro Guerra
Scr: J. M. Coetzee
Prd: Monika Bacardi, Michael Fitzgerald, Andrea Iervolino, Olga Secura
DOP: Chris Menges
Music: Giampiero Ambrosi
Country: USA, Italy
Run time: 112 minutes
Waiting for the Barbarians is available for digital download from 7th September.