Review: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan and Greta Scacchi

August 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp in “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Waiting for the Barbarians” 

Directed by Ciro Guerra

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed frontier settlement in the early 20th century, the drama “Waiting for the Barbarians” features a racially diverse cast of white and indigenous people representing the British military and native people.

Culture Clash:  A magistrate in charge of the settlement resists his government’s attempts at brutal colonialism.

Culture Audience: “Waiting for the Barbarians” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind seeing a frontier film that doesn’t involve epic battles but instead shows the effects of racist imperialism in a more intimate and introspective manner.

Robert Pattinson in “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is about the insidiousness of racist colonialism, but people might be surprised to find out that it’s not the kind of movie filled with soldiers stampeding through an area to conquer the land and people. Instead, “Waiting for Barbarians” is more of a meditative character study where many of the scenes are slow-paced and the movie’s impact comes gradually rather than hitting viewers all at once. People are either going to appreciate this less predictable approach to telling this story or they’re going to dislike it if they’re expecting something more conventional.

Ciro Guerra directed “Waiting and Barbarians,” which is based on J.M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name. Coetzee also wrote the movie’s screenplay. The movie’s slow pacing is indicative of life on an isolated settlement, but there are some moments in the film (particularly in the scenes that take place outdoors) that have some dramatic visuals that are quite suspenseful and emotionally riveting.

The story’s central character is an unnamed British magistrate (played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance), who’s in charge of an unnamed frontier settlement in a desert area in the late 1920s or early 1930s. (For the purposes of this review, this character will be called the Magistrate.) The Magistrate, who is not married and has no children, is a mild-mannered leader who has been living peacefully among his colleagues and the indigenous people in the area. One of his trusted co-workers is a lieutenant (played by Sam Reid), who willingly obeys orders.

It’s established early on in the story that Magistrate is a pacifist who doesn’t believe that his home country should kill and torture the natives in order to have control of the area. He doesn’t like to call the indigenous people “barbarians,” as his fellow countrymen call them. Instead he calls the indigenous people “natives.” And the Magistrate doesn’t hesitate to correct people who call them “barbarians,” because he thinks it’s a racist and derogatory word for the indigenous people.

The Magistrate’s relatively tranquil life is disrupted one spring day when a pompous bureaucrat named Colonel Joll (played by Johnny Depp) arrives to complete an inspection of the settlement. The biggest clue that this story takes place sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s because Colonel Joll is wearing a new invention: sunglasses. He likes to show and explain this new invention to anyone who asks about it.

Colonel Joll isn’t a member of the military. He works for the police bureau of state security. And he isn’t just there for an inspection. He wants to interrogate the indigenous people in the area about their rumored plans to attack and start a war with the white colonial settlers. And he drops some not-so-subtle hints to the Magistrate that his interrogation methods include torture.

The Magistrate isn’t too worried that there will be an attack. He says, “Once in every generation, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians. It’s the consequence of too much ease.” But Colonel Joll doesn’t respect the Magistrate’s laid-back approach to leading the settlement. And the Magistrate soon finds out how sadistic Colonol Joll is when several indigenous men, including some in the local jail, end up brutally tortured by Colonol Joll and his minions.

Colonel Joll leaves the area, much to Magistrate’s relief. And then, a mysterious young indigenous woman (played by Gana Bayarsaikhan) shows up at the settlement during the winter. She doesn’t have a name in the movie, which only identifies her as Girl, but she has obviously been tortured. Her broken ankle hasn’t properly healed, she’s mostly blind, and she has scarring on her face that was made with a heated fork that was used in the torture.

The Magistrate tells her that vagrants aren’t allowed in the settlement, but he has compassion for her and lets her stay in the settlement in exchange for her doing work there. It’s also hinted a little later in the story that he’s sexually attracted to her, but he’s too much of a gentleman to make any moves on her. However, he invites her to live with him on a platonic basis, and he starts giving her leg massages.

It isn’t long before she’s sharing the same bed with him—not as his lover but as a close companion in a situation where two very lonely people without family have turned to each other for emotional comfort. She opens up to the Magistrate a little bit about her past, including her experience being tortured, and she tells the Magistrate that she eventually wants to go back to her people in her original home several hundred miles away. It would

This living arrangement inevitably causes gossip amongst the white colonials in the settlement, including a widowed grandmother named Mai (played by Greta Scacchi) who seems to be attracted to the Magistrate. Meanwhile, a British military visitor to the settlement asks the Magistrate why the native people in the settlement seem so unhappy. The Magistrate answers, “It will take years to patch up the damaged Joll did in a week. They still think of us [colonials] as visitors, transients.”

The last half of the movie involves a fateful trip that the Magistrate takes, the return of Colonel Joll, and the arrival of a Brit named Officer Mandell (played by Robert Pattinson), who makes his views on colonialism very clear. All of the cast members do a good job in their believable character roles, but Rylance’s steady, often quiet portrayal of the Magistrate is the emotional heart of the story.

People who know that Depp is in the film might expect him to play an over-the-top flamboyant character. There are elements of flashiness in Colonel Joll’s demeanor, but his menacing evil is more controlled. He’s not the type of villain to have raging temper tantrums. His icy personality is a true reflection of his cold-blooded detachment from the mayhem and torture that he inflicts. As such, people who are expecting Depp to play the type of kooky protagonist (and leading role) that he tends to have in his movies might be disappointed that he has a supporting role as a villain who’s only in this movie for about 20 minutes.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” gets its title from the paranoia that the colonials feel about waiting for the native people to attack them, because the colonials know that they have invaded the native people’s territory. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the racism and torture that were committed in the name of colonialism, but it doesn’t have a traditional narrative of groups of people rising up against each other. “Waiting for the Barbarians” might frustrate or bore people expecting an action-packed war movie. However, the movie gives some compelling insight into one man’s resistance to racist colonialism and how this struggle wasn’t necessarily fought on a battlefield.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Waiting for the Barbarians” on digital and VOD on August 7, 2020.