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Frontiers for fears in Waiting For The Barbarians

Mark Rylance, Robert Pattinson and Jonny Depp star in compelling adaptation of JM Coetzee novel

03 September, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Mark Rylance in Waiting For The Barbarians

Directed by Ciro Guerra
Certificate 15

A DESERT outpost, a town where geo-politics could easily be forgotten, is the stage for this adaptation of the novel by JM Coetzee that works as a parable about the inhumanity of the nation state.

It tells the story of the benevolent and patriarchal magistrate (Mark Rylance), who has spent years overseeing an isolated frontier fort and town in the far-flung outlands of an unspecified empire.

When Colonel Joll (Jonny Depp) arrives to inspect the place, he brings him the dark clouds of fascism. He tells the magistrate of impending trouble on the frontier, of the barbarians lying outside the walls – and the only way to deal with it is extreme violence.

It becomes all too clear who the real barbarians are.

The magistrate, meanwhile, rescues a woman who has been tortured by his fellow countrymen – and a more personal story of the toll on your humanity such a job takes begins to emerge.

This portrayal of empire will no doubt make the apologists for Britain’s genocide around the globe furious.

But it is tragically a scenario repeated time and time again, as so thoroughly described in Richard Gott’s excellent book, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt. It lays bare the crimes committed in our country’s name – and such behaviour becomes all too real in director Ciro Guerra’s film.

This is very much the story told through the White administrator, and while it uses Rylance’s character to make its all too valid point, it also could be seen as ignoring the stories of those the empire is lording it over – an unintentionally strange taste of hypocrisy could linger, if the magistrate was not such a compelling watchable figure.

Robert Pattinson also creeps through his scenes with thuggish menace, an ambitious foot soldier convinced his righteousness.

Then there is Johnny Depp. It feels a while since he turned in a truly satisfactory performance. His colonel looks menacing, but the cloak of fear evaporates a little when he opens his mouth.

He appears to be subconsciously mimicking Rylance’s particular way of speech, littered with pauses and accents, as if being in his presence has made Depp try to weakly follow his lead. It is a shame: Depp’s loathsome character is a well written role and deserves more oomph.

But the story is compelling enough, and the scenery fantastic. Gorgeously shot, it draws heavily on the Western genre and has an interesting message at its heart.


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