WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS – Review
If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, the old saying goes, and if you assume everyone is your enemy, they might become exactly that. WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is drama based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel, that presents a cautionary tale about nations or empires sowing the seeds of their own destruction in their search for imagined threats. Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson star in director Ciro Guerra’s powerful adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s classic novel of the same name, in a haunting cautionary tale of empire and cultural misunderstanding, with a striking contemporary echoes.
There is a lot of talent assembled in this film – an Oscar-nominated director, a Nobel Prize-winning author, an Oscar winning cinematographer, and Oscar winners and nominees among the fine cast. Such as assemblage doesn’t guarantee success but it has worked here. Although this myth-like story takes place in an unspecified time and place, the points it makes are universal, concerning the dangers of the false assumptions of torture and militaristic mindsets. Torture tends to extract the information you want – even if it is not true. History has shown this time and again, from the Inquisition to Abu Ghraib.
WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS fits in well with the anti-colonial message of the director’s previous work. This is the first English-language film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, whose previous films include the Oscar-nominated EMRACE OF THE SERPENT. Guerra has long been an admirer of the novel WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS by Nobel Prize-winning South African author J. M. Coetzee. The director made at least two previous efforts to bring the award-winning novel to the big screen before succeeding – oh-so-well – with this one.
Mark Rylance plays the Magistrate, a mild-mannered colonial administrator who has long been in charge of a remote garrison outpost on a quiet, sparsely populated border of an unnamed colonial empire. The Magistrate efficiently and fairly handles the few problems that arise in this sleepy corner of the unnamed empire, which leaves him plenty of time for his hobby of amateur archaeology exploring the ancient history of the region.
When an official from the empire’s center, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), arrives in his fine carriage with a small contingent of soldiers, the Magistrate is not concerned. He greets the officious Joll politely and prepares to make his report on conditions around the garrison. As the Magistrate tells one of his assistants, he has seen this before. Every ten years, he says, the empire feels the need to send someone to check on the “barbarians” on the border, just to make sure all is right, and then they leave.
The Magistrate expects the same from this colonel but Joll is different. With a decidedly unpleasant, even arrogant manner, Joll constantly wears his newly-invented sunglasses which conceal his eyes and seems little interested in the Magistrate’s efforts to tell him about the current conditions on the border. Instead, Joll’s focus falls on a pair of nomads, “barbarians” he arrested on the way to the garrison, and Joll’s methods involve torture. The Magistrate is shocked but, suppressing his feelings, he calmly quizzes Joll about the usefulness of the torture. Joll reveals his belief that “the enemy,” meaning the nomads just beyond the border, are planning an attack on the empire, and then extols his own skill at extracting information, never once acknowledging that his victims might have no secret information to tell.
When Joll leaves the garrison to check on other parts of the border, the Magistrate’s disgust spill overs, and he cleans the garrison of all traces of the colonel’s visit, restoring it to its usual peaceful, orderly life. But then another the officer of the empire shows up, an assistant to Joll named Mandel (Robert Pattinson). Mandel as even more brutal and committed to ferreting out a secret invasion by the barbarians.
Two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Chris Menges (THE KILLING FIELDS, THE MISSION, THE READER) fills the screen with sweeping desert vistas, dusty interiors of the garrison, and views of the Magistrate’s neat, book-filled office. The photography is stunning, imbuing the film with a sense of its remoteness and isolation, and setting the characters in that same overwhelmingly stark place.
The story is very much in the vein of the mythic, and the actors play characters that are symbolic of forces within human nature as much as people. Rylance, Depp and Pattinson are all superb, although the greatest load in telling this tale falls to the gifted Rylance, who plays both the human heart and a voice of decency overwhelmed by drive to war and suspicions of the “other.”
Beyond the lead actors, fine performances are offered by Greta Scacchi as the Magistrate’s housekeeper Mai, a sympathetic ear who also represents the civilians buffeted by the dangerous decisions of Joll and Mandel, and Harry Melling as a young soldier serving under the Magistrate, torn by what he sees. Both actors make the most of these small but important roles. Gana Bayarsaikhan, a striking Mongolian model-turned-actress who had minor roles in WONDER WOMAN and EX MACHINA, appears as a pivot character identified only as the “barbarian girl,” in a nice performance in her first major screen role.
Although the story seems to take place in a distant time and place, what it is saying about human nature is chillingly contemporary and timeless. The story takes place at a purposely vague place and time, at an outpost at the a distant border of an unspecified empire, a deliberate choice of the novel. The dusty, windswept desert location and the Asian features of the nomad suggests Central Asia, the uniforms suggest the French Foreign Legion, and other details suggest the 19th Century, but nothing is definite. In fact, the film was shot in Morocco and Italy,and the cast playing the garrison’s officials and solders sport British accents. All that matters is that it is some colonial power and an outpost on a remote border, in a quiet, sparsely populated area very far from the center of the empire.
WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is divided into four chapters labeled by season but not quite in order. Colonel Joll arrives in the heat of summer, where his brutality scorches the landscape. Mandel does not arrive until the cold, dark winter, bringing dismay that the chapter opened in summer continues. There is another chapter set in spring, centered on a teen know only as “the barbarian girl” (Gana Bayarsaikhan), who turns up at the garrison, an apparent victim of torture. The final chapter, tellingly, is set in fall.
This is an impressive piece of mythic film making, powerful parable about colonialism, brutality toward the “other,’ and how we can inadvertently create the danger we fear. The drama sends a powerful message about torture in particular, and the danger in the ignorance of other cultures and misunderstandings arising out of mistaken assumptions. WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is available on demand and on digital starting on Friday, Aug. 7.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars