Waiting for the Barbarians

Colonel Joll and the Magistrate

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.

Waiting for the Barbarians – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington


After pausing for Dunkirk, a (for him) human-scale drama, Christopher Nolan is back on Inception/Interstellar territory with Tenet, a grandiose exercise in hi-tech bogglement that doesn’t shortchange the fans.

It’s spectacular like Operation Desert Storm was. Designed to shock and awe, it’s a technological marvel that would almost rather there were no humans involved at all. Can’t we get drones to do the acting?

Actually, drones have done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the plot, because rather than come up with anything too new, Nolan has taken a whole load of James Bond bits and pieces and then given a quick wipe over with a massive spend on post.

It’s Bond, but flipped – John David (son of Denzel) Washington as the cool, urbane agent, a black American rather than a white Brit. As his Felix Leiter fixer and factotum figure, a white Brit (rather than a black American) in the shape of Robert Pattinson. On Q duty is a woman, Clémence Poesy getting dumped with the job of explicating all the techy stuff to Washington so the rest of the film can take wing – “Don’t try to understand it,” she says (un)helpfully, after having explained, more or less, the concept behind “reverse entropy”. She might as well have said “dicking about with time again,” something Nolan has been doing since Memento.

Every Bond has his villain keen to do something despicable to the planet, and here there is no flipping. Kenneth Branagh slots into the time-honoured role of the Brit playing the crazed Russian, which we can trace all the way back to Edinburgh-born Anthony Dawson as Blofeld in From Russia with Love.

Perhaps Tenet is most like a Bond film in that characters don’t matter much – they’re types (Hero, Villain, Babe, Hench) – it’s the set pieces that people come to see, and Nolan has delivered three on an epic scale even before the film’s real purpose has fully revealed itself. In a concert hall, a train shunting yard and on an airport runway, though he saves his most jaw-dropping display for later – a bait-and-switch set on a highway where a speeding motorcade of trucks is squeezed for thrills, while time runs backwards and forwards simultaneously, possibly.

Also like the Bond films, you can fall asleep at any point, wake up again at any point and it doesn’t matter, the enjoyment is not diminished. This makes it the perfect movie to watch on a Saturday night after a big dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. Or a Sunday afternoon.


John David Washington and Robert Pattinson driving
Two against the world: John David Washington and Robert Pattinson


Having read a couple of reviews before seeing the movie (which was not easy to see in the Plague Year of Our Lord 2020), I was expecting a zinging John David Washington as the man known only as Protagonist. And though he started hot, smart and sleek, Protagonist seemed to get cooler, dumber and duller as the film progressed, or perhaps he was just overwhelmed by all the tech like everyone else, or the repeated pauses in the action to remind everyone just what the hell is going on.

Perhaps he was also dragged down by Elizabeth Debicki, as the trophy wife of the Russian megalomaniac Sator (see The Night Manager for Debicki in a similar role). Nolan’s script insists she’s a character – a woman driven by a maternal love for a child we never actually meet – but actually she’s a Bond girl Nolan hasn’t got the heart to be honest about.

For all the Bond references, I suspect it’s The Matrix Nolan is really aiming at – a high concept sci-fi movie with a standout signature bit of special-effects wizardry that’ll really get the nerds salivating. For all the impressive collisions of realities – one running forward, the other running backward – Nolan’s “reverse entropy” doesn’t quite re-invent the world of SFX like “bullet time” did in 1999. But he’s not far off.




Tenet – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021




Robert Pattinson gets his haircut in Cosmopolis


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 September



Occupy Wall Street starts, 2011


On this day in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement, unable to set up its protest against US financial institutions in its original two preferred locations, took over Zuccotti Park, New York. With its rallying cry “We are the 99 per cent,” it made reference to the growing disparity in income distribution in the US (back more or less to its levels around the time of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, in spite of more than 80 years of relative prosperity) and set off a wave of similar protests all over the world. Though apparently spontaneous, it was organised by the PR agency Workhouse on behalf of Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist “global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.” An aim they achieved. By the time the police closed Zuccotti Park on 11 November 2011, the largely peaceful protest had made its point and put income distribution back on the political agenda, to some degree at least. What gave the movement its political heft was the make-up of the protesters. Largely well educated, employed people earning good salaries, a third of them over 35 years of age, the statistic that must have caused most consternation back at the parties’ HQs is that 70 per cent of them identified with none of the political brand leaders.


Cosmopolis (2012, dir: David Cronenberg)

Yes, the thought of Robert Pattinson in the back of a limo, droning on for hours isn’t everyone’s idea of a great film. But it’s directed by David Cronenberg, master of a certain sort of horror (not Twilight style horror, admittedly) who uses Pattinson’s pallour and his reserve to good effect, as the super-entitled billionaire kid floating round a nameless metropolis (it’s Toronto) while outside unrest stalks the streets. It’s a Keanu role – eerie, blank – in a film adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel, a meditation on how the elite have become divorced from the rest of us. As troubled cyber-entrepreneur Eric Packer, Pattinson gets to talk in epigrams, non sequiturs, have sex with a succession of hot women, play with guns here and there. And as Packer heads off to get the haircut that the whole film hangs on we’re treated to a melding of DeLillo’s forensic cool with the weird of Cronenberg, the result an absurdist existential Camus-like examination of a distracted mind in the middle of a crisis. Give it a while to get going – the affectless style, Pattinson’s deliberately dead-eyed performance, the focus on the inside of a car almost to the exclusion of everything else, all the “just what the hell is going on?” questions it is bound to raise, they do all take a while to process. After that, though, it’s a gripping slide, effortless, graceful, towards the abyss.




Why Watch?


  • Intense cameos from the likes of Juliette Binoche, Mathieu Amalric
  • Watch Pattinson, then imagine Colin Farrell, its original lead, doing it
  • Pattinson’s character is the “one per cent” that Occupy Wall Street allude to
  • DeLillo’s verdit – “I am impressed… It is as uncompromising as it can possibly be”


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Cosmopolis – at Amazon