At the core of Waiting for the Barbarians, a surprisingly star-studded new independent release, is a concept that’s worthy of top-tier cinematic execution. Unfortunately, despite solid performances, great cinematography, and strong themes that should resonate, the emotion of it all is held too much at arm’s length. Being an intellectual exercise is all well and good, but if it’s not compelling, what’s the point? Sadly, this one comes up short due to a failure to turn these good ingredients into an enjoyable meal. There are certainly worse options out this week, but there are far better ones, as well, so except this to get lost in the shuffle.
The movie is a drama about an officer at an outpost beginning to question his loyalty to the empire. This Magistrate (Mark Rylance) runs an isolated frontier settlement on the border of an unnamed empire with relative ease. Frankly, he just wants to keep the peace and look forward to his retirement. The arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), however, complicates that. The Colonel is on hand to assess the security of the outpost and to question some prisoners, the supposed barbarians who reside in the desert. The Magistrate is not at ease with his work, and that only increases when he begins a series of brutal, and even deadly, interrogations. Slowly, his views of the empire begin to change, though when they realize this, their cruelty turns towards him. Ciro Guerra directs a screenplay by J.M. Coetzee, who turns his own book into a script. Giampiero Ambrosi composed the score, while the cinematography is by Oscar-winning DP Chris Menges. Rounding out the cast are Gana Bayarsaikhan, David Dencik, Sam Reid, and Greta Scacchi, among others. Robert Pattinson has a supporting role as well, playing another heartless military man in Officer Mandel.
First of all, the cinematography here is very nice. That’s no surprise, considering how much of a master Chris Menges has proven to be over his career. Menges’ work here is never showy, but it elevates drier parts of the flick. The final shot, in particular (should you last that long), is a real keeper. Likewise, the central performance by Mark Rylance is quite good. He’s a slightly passive actor for a lead role, but it fits the character. Smaller supporting tuns from Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson are fine, but not really anything to write home about. The latter is largely wasted, while the former is probably there mostly as a name to help get financing.
Waiting for the Barbarians suffers from incredibly poor pacing and a failure to do enough with the themes that are being played with. J.M. Coetzee adapted his own novel here, so there’s nothing lost in translation due to not understanding what the author intended, since the screenwriter is one and the same. Much of it falls on director Ciro Guerra struggling to keep an audience interested. At almost two hours long, several stretches of the film go on for far too long, destroying the already lax pacing. Curiosity over what might happen next can only take you so far, and here, it comes up well short.
This weekend, some slightly more highfalutin viewers might want to give Waiting for the Barbarians a shot, as it represents a version of classy prestige filmmaking. Unfortunately, like so many movies before it, what could have been award worthy fare in better hands just comes up short. If you see it, you’ll be seeing it for the acting or the cinematography. For some of you, that may be enough. For most, you’ll be like me and wind up left wanting more…
Waiting for the Barbarians comes out on Friday.
(Photos courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)