At the edge of an unspecified empire, a local magistrate (Mary Rylance) enjoys a co-operative relationship with the nomadic people he’s been sent to govern. However, that all changes with the arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) who believes that systematic torture is a much better method of controlling the border’s population. Caught between Joll’s cold, sadistic ambition and his own sense of moral decency, Rylance’s Magistrate faces a life-changing decision…
not a classic but it certainly stands out from other offerings in this current desert of choice.
Dressed very much in the style of a Foreign Legion epic, this English-speaking debut of Ciro Guerra aims for the broadest possible canvas. Visually rich and generously evocative of such classics as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, this adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel similarly centres around a man betrayed by an empire that he attempts to faithfully serve. Together with a richly adorned cast, the omens would seem to be good for Guerra’s debut and yet one actor has brought more than baggage with him into the desert.
Stepping out of his refrigerator-like carriage in his very first scene, it immediately becomes clear that Johnny Depp is hiding in plain sight again. Sporting an overtly incongruous pair of sunglasses, Depp sadly falls headlong into self-parody as caustically conservative Colonel Joll. Don’t get me wrong. The sunglasses are integral to both the plot and the arc of his character, but like an ill-fitting wig, sadly this one details throws off of all of his very best intentions. This is brought all the more into sharp relief when the real star of the proceedings starts to effortlessly shine.
Mark Rylance is, and has long been considered to be, one of the finest actors of his generation, and it really only feels like now, that cinema is finally figuring out what to do with him. With a deft economy, Rylance’s magistrate spirals around Depp like a winged bird, observing a retribution that is assuredly set to come, and yet Depp underscores this descent by repeatedly sucking his cheeks in by way of indifference.
The actorly contrast couldn’t be more painful.
Unintentionally adding even more injury to this comparison is the arrival of Robert Pattinson in a minor role. Fed a fraction of Depp’s overall screen time, Pattinson similarly outacts Depp as Joll’s believably sadistic charge d’affaires, all of which leaves Depp looking like his clipped heels are in the wrong film. Add to this to the presence of an almost unrecognisable Greta Scacchi, who completes her migration of starlet to studied thespian, and Johnny Depp’s wagons are left rounded in surrender. Shame.
With its almost processional approach to dialogue, Waiting For The Barbarians can feel like it’s wilting to a standstill within its own sun-baked scenery. With its christ-like nods towards themes of penitence and redemption, Guerra’s direction is both oddly intrigue and melodrama free. Left on an obvious if inevitable trajectory, this is still a well-acted if stuffily-reaped harvest for a central character would rather apologise for its gathering.
That said, whilst it falls short of both the heft and impact of a more dramatically taut story, Waiting For The Barbarians still manages to stand tall as an example of what superior acting can do with lesser fare. See it for Mark Rylance. See it for Robert Pattinson. See it for Greta Scacchi and accept that Johnny Depp’s presence is there to add to the budgetary numbers.
Waiting For The Barbarians is not a classic but it certainly stands out from other offerings in this current desert of choice.