‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ Offers a Substandard View on Supremacy, Morality and Historical Injustice

A still from 'Waiting for the Barbarians'. The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) stands in a tan linen uniform next to Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) who is wearing a blue military uniform with gold trim, and a blue hat. He weats dark sunglasses. Both men are unarmed. Two other soldiers stand guarding the door to the building behind them.
Samuel Goldwyn Films 

“Pain is truth”, and it cannot be avoided, whether we see ourselves on the side of justice or injustice. Sometimes three simple words is all it takes to describe one’s actions, and how horrible they can be. 

Based on the book of the same name by J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians follows the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) of an unnamed solitary outpost in a desert frontier, one of many belonging to the Empire. The outpost is a peaceful one, and the Magistrate is a kind man who rules passively and believes that as long as they keep to themselves and leave the so-called ‘barbarians’ alone — those who refute the Empire’s rule — then peace will remain. 

All that changes one day in summer when Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives to investigate incidents pertaining to these barbarians. At the outpost, he tortures prisoners into providing him with false confessions and information he wants to hear, in the hopes of starting a war; a war to wipe out the barbarian tribes once and for all. When Joll leaves, the Magistrate begins to discover the brutal lengths Joll and the rest of the Empire will go to assert their rule. Anyone who champions equality and dares to stand in their way will face their wrath, regardless of what uniform one wears. 

Waiting for the Barbarians also stars Robert Pattinson as Officer Mandel, Joll’s malevolent second in command, and Gana Bayarsaikhan as ‘the Girl’, a barbarian prisoner who the Magistrate comes to harbor complicated feelings towards and plays a large role in revealing  the true nature of the Empire’s thirst for blood and dominance. 

A still from 'Waiting for the Barbarians'. Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) is shown in a mid-shot wearing his blue military uniform with gold trim. The top two buttons of his jacket are undone and his hair is slicked back apart from two strands hanging down his face. He has his jaw clenched as he looks over to something off-screen.
 Samuel Goldwyn Films 

The cinematography is indeed beautiful, capturing the vast and distant spaces of the Moroccan setting in which the film is based. Author Coetzee himself was responsible for the film’s screenplay, so it is clear that the silver screen version of his novel is an accurate translation of the original.

Unfortunately, the film fails to capitalise on Rylance, Depp and Pattinson’s talents, and relies solely on their name to entice viewers. The first half is extremely slow, and while it does a satisfactory job establishing the gray relationship between the mysterious Empire and the native population, each new realisation that dawns upon the Magistrate —each action and each overall scene, is drawn out to a frustrating degree. It is not until the final forty-minutes or so, with Pattinson’s (long-overdue) entrance, does the film pick up its pace. 

Though the film’s message is a crucial one, focusing on the ethical and moral crimes that surround colonialism and its many atrocities as opposed to depicting physical war— as the title suggests —the audience remains waiting for fulfillment and closure long after the credits begin to roll. 

Waiting for the Barbarians is available on Digital from August 7th

by Kacy Hogg

Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, CinderellaCaptain America: The Winter SoldierThe Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95

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