REVIEW: Waiting for the Barbarians

Despite the strong cast and being beautifully filmed, this film adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s novel lacks strength in delivering the story.

Directed with great resonance by Cirra Guerra, J.M Coetzee’s novel telling the story of how a magistrate presiding over an unspecified part of the colonial outpost in the middle of the desert, suddenly finds his peaceful existence is disrupted by the arrival of state security officers.

As the tensions between the ruthless and merciless Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) and the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) intensify, the audience is shown a brutal world of violence captured with raw brilliance through Guerra’s clever use of certain shots and use of lighting to enhance the darkness of what is unfolding.

The violence and horror of what the state security officers inflict on the nomads is balanced out nicely by flashes of compassion, such as the way in which the Magistrate looks after a blind woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) he finds in the street- the way in which he washes her feet is a surprisingly tender moment in a film that is ultimately brutal.

However, it has to be said this is a film that has plenty of flaws. The pacing is slow and the story takes time to get into- which is a shame given the number of different important themes that it covers that sadly still resonate today. It meanders in places that can make it difficult to keep up with what is going on, feeling more like snapshots into the way in which the Magistrate’s life is turned upside down and how those in the town are treated. You never really get a sense of the Magistrate’s passion and struggle to fight for what is right – a stronger screenplay is definitely needed.

The whole film has been beautifully captured, with some memorable imagery by Chris Menges that makes the film feel stylish and presented how it should be. There is no denying that it is compelling to watch.

Despite problems with the screenplay, there are some strong performances to be found. In particular, Gana Bayarsaikhan as The Girl is certainly one to watch out for – being able to convey so much with very little dialogue, the audience really feels her pain and anguish, making it a memorable performance. Mark Rylance offers a gentle and reassuring performance as the Magistrate that offers many layers – particularly when he speaks disdainfully to Colonel Joll that leads him into trouble, it is understated but powerful.

Johnny Depp is equally as charismatic but in a completely contrasting way as Colonel Joll. The way in which he appears so detached and clinical makes it a chilling performance to watch unfold, particularly when he reveals the way in which he gets the truth from people is a memorable moment. The only person who I feel was underused was Robert Pattinson as Officer Mandel – it is quite a restrained and aggressive performance that works well for the character and it would have been interesting to see more of him.

Overall, it is a flawed film but yet there is still something compelling in the way in which it has been brought to life. With a tighter screenplay and sharper focus it could have made an even stronger impact on the audience. As it is, Waiting for the Barbarians has plenty of bite but needs more depth to the story.

By Emma Clarendon

Waiting For The Barbarians will be available on Digital Download from the 7th September and can be pre-ordered here.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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