Waiting for the Barbarians

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It’s a Sondheimian title, Waiting for the Barbarians – as in, “don’t worry, they’re here” – a story about the white man’s civilising mission on some distant frontier and how it gives licence to people whose instincts are far from civilised.

The uniforms are deliberately non-specific but for the sake of argument we might as well say it’s the British who are in the spotlight, especially as Brit Mark Rylance is the star. He’s also almost the entire focus of a film about a kindly magistrate way out in the midst of a sandy nowhere whose humanist tendencies are crushed underfoot by the arrival of one badass after another.

Enter Johnny Depp, in another of his over-elaborate, overly enunciated performances as some kind of cop who’s been sent in to conduct an audit of the magistrate’s operation and flush out the barbarians he’s convinced are lurking. His methods are brutal – “Pain is truth, all else is subject to doubt,” he announces to the shocked magistrate, who can only look on powerlessly as Colonel Joll (Depp) sets about torturing information out of the locals, in the process creating the very resistance he’s come to sniff out.

Later, Robert Pattinson will turn up, Officer Mandel being another martinet who believes that there’s no problem that can’t be fixed with a bit of violence. The two poles of the Empire are laid out before us, culture-wars style – the rationalist, humanist, civilising side represented by Rylance and the brutish, inhumane side by first Depp and later, in a particularly dead-eyed performance, by Pattinson.

Somewhere in the middle is Gana Bayarsaikhan as “The Girl”. The striking Mongolian actor/model is, we’re told, going to be a big star and gets off to a good start here as a local young woman caught up in the nastiness visited by Colonel Joll and Officer Mandel on what had been a sleepy, sunny nowhere criss-crossed by nomadic tribes.

In films like Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage (co-directed with his wife, Cristina Gallego), Ciro Guerra has dealt sensitively and intelligently with stories about the effect that the arrival of Westerners and their values has on indigenous populations, so this adaptation of a JM Coetzee novel fits his MO.

Gana Bayarsaikhan in tribal finery
Gana Bayarsaikhan in tribal finery

Coetzee’s novel, written in 1980, was at the time a useful corrective to a prevailing narrative about the Empire – the white man’s burden and all that – but now seems a blunt instrument. In one scene the magistrate – losing rank and prestige as the film progresses – washes the feet of the tortured Girl. He’s Jesus, we get it.

Guerra is particularly good on summoning a sense of place, and is massively helped here by DP Chris Menges, the master cinematographer with The Mission and The Killing Fields on his CV, who brings an epic look reminiscent of Zulu or Lawrence of Arabia to what is absolutely unquestionably a magnificent-looking film.

Too magnificent, possibly. As one carefully shot, tastefully lit scene gives way to another, the steady, stately pace threatens to stall the film entirely. Blame Menges, if you like, but really this is a director’s shout.

Guerra makes things worse by letting Depp have his head as a pantomime villain (complete with prototype Bond-villain shades), a lead which Pattinson follows. Bad guys, we get that too.

Where are the locals? Bayarsaikhan apart, there aren’t that many in this film, and those that are in it aren’t really individuated. Whether they have a messiah complex or arrive with more malevolent intent, this is a film about white guys doing white-guy stuff.

Which is all a bit ironic really, given Guerra’s previous output and the magistrate’s insistence on respect for the local people. An anti-colonial film made from within the colonial mindset is the result, which is fascinating in some respects. But what really does for Waiting for the Barbarians is its surfeit of taste.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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