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An enigmatic empire – ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

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As the brilliant Scottish poet Robbie Burns once said (apologies for the English paraphrasing), “The best laid plans of mice and men/Go oft awry.” It’s a sentiment that rings true across all avenues – and the movie business is no exception.

For instance, say you had a film. You had three talented actors leading the cast, including an Oscar winner and a couple of legitimate movie stars. You had a rising young director and a screenwriter adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen. All of this folded into a period piece with a striking setting. You’d think that it was poised to be a great film, yes?

Alas, in the case of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the sum total falls short. Despite the presence of the brilliant Mark Rylance and bold turns from the likes of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, despite the presence of director Ciro Guerra, despite J.M Coetzee’s adaptation of his own 2003 novel of the same name, the film can’t scale the heights to which it so clearly aspires.

It’s a story of isolation and empire, a cautionary tale about colonialism that can never fully get out of its own way. There’s no denying the quality of performances or the stunning backdrop against which they are set, but the film simply never generates any kind of momentum, limping along through most of its 114 minutes without ever presenting a sense of dramatic urgency. All the pieces are there for a great film, only they’re assembled into something that is just OK.

Rylance plays the unnamed Magistrate of a border outpost. He is in charge of this section of the line to be held against the barbarians that wander the plains, ostensibly posing a danger to the Empire. But in the course of doing his duty over the years, he has realized that things here are far different than the way the powers that be perceive them. To his mind, the barbarians are simply nomadic people who want nothing more than to be left alone. They are no threat to him or his people.

Things change when a seemingly minor theft in the town leads to the Empire taking an interest. Specifically, they send the sinister Colonel Joll (Depp) to investigate. Said investigation is done via sadistic means, with Joll and his men utilizing violent torture to extract coerced confessions regarding acts of sedition and plots against the Empire.

The Magistrate finds himself sympathizing with Joll’s victims, particularly a young woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan, TV’s “Intelligence”) whose terrible wounds have left her crippled and unable to return to her people. He spends time nursing her wounds and the connection between them quietly grows. All the while, his questions regarding the Empire and its methods continue to fester.

But those sympathies and questions soon come back to bite him when Joll’s henchman Officer Mandel (Pattinson) comes to the outpost to clear the way for the Colonel’s return. And when the Magistrate’s loyalty comes under fire, circumstances quickly spiral out of control, both for him and for the outpost in general.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is an aptly titled film. Much of the movie’s run time is filled with a sense of anticipation, of waiting for something to happen. Unfortunately, those payoffs are both too infrequent and a little underwhelming. There’s a sedentary vibe to the proceedings that, while certainly evocative of the setting, causes some difficulty regarding our engagement. The pacing is almost glacial most of the time, interspersed with occasional moments of brutality.

The sandy steppes that serve as the setting are undeniably stunning to look at. Guerra clearly has an eye for the grandiose, composing some genuinely striking screen pictures that capture the austere bleakness of the windblown deserts. All of it brings forth a sense of vastness and isolation, the outpost a tiny dot in the middle of an unforgiving landscape.

It will come as no surprise that Rylance is outstanding. In his hands, the Magistrate becomes a man whose separation from his superiors has led him down a freethinking path; he exudes gentleness and goodness. No one does quiet dignity like Rylance and he wields it to full effect. Depp radiates menace from the moment he appears on screen; he manages to encapsulate the buttoned-up sadism of the character instantly. Pattinson’s violence is closer to the surface, explosive and dismissive at the same time; he’s very good even though he doesn’t really turn up until over halfway through the film. Bayarsaikhan does lovely, subtle work as the girl and there are a number of solid ensemble performances sprinkled throughout as well, but the film ultimately belongs to the trio atop the billing.

Yet, even with the first-rate performances and the stark majesty of the setting, “Waiting for the Barbarians” doesn’t work. In its efforts to condemn the sins of colonialism and point up the contrast between civil oversight and militant occupation, it loses the thread of storytelling. The why of the narrative is muddied by the slow pacing and a sense of disconnect. And while keeping the Empire as a vague entity – it’s obviously modeled on the British Empire, but is intended as a fictional analogue – makes sense in terms of storytelling flexibility, the undefined nature of it makes it somewhat more difficult to fully connect.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” has a lot to recommend it, with its strong performances and hauntingly lovely setting. Unfortunately, those elements aren’t enough to elevate it to the capital-G Greatness that it obviously seeks. It’s a film that falls short of its aims, a collection of excellent pieces that nevertheless fail to fully coalesce. A pretty good movie that could (and should) have been better.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 10 August 2020 05:40

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