Ewan Gleadow

Movie Review: Waiting for the Barbarians

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Copyright: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Colonialism and the magistrates at the head of it all is a fascinating topic of discussion. I’m not entirely sure it’s made the best transfer to the big screen though, their atrocities and innovations are ill-balanced, with films flailing between two equally damaging caricatures. I suppose the history A-Level in me was a little shook by Waiting for the Barbarians and the stark mediocrity it possesses. Considering this film has such talent in front of and behind the camera, you’d expect something far greater and grander from a film that looks to show off its grandiose prospects so rapidly. It comes off as smug, and without the abilities of a cast and crew to pull it off, it does become a tad embarrassing. 

There’s little for leading man Mark Rylance to be embarrassed of though. He turns in an admirable performance that inspires confidence in the early moments of the film. Following orders he disagrees with, he brings a genuine, necessary human touch to proceedings. An emotion swatted to the wayside by Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp). Depp sticks out like a sore thumb, his character draped in dark clothing and a pair of wood-looking sunglasses. He gives the sort of execution we’ve come to expect of him in recent years. A tad bloated, but at least it’s not as bad as The Rum Diary or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. His glory days are long behind him, and he struggles to click with the cast around him. 

Considering the mass appeal he now has, Robert Pattinson should be an impressive draw for Waiting for the Barbarians. I don’t quite remember what he gets up to in this one, more a worry for my fading memory than a criticism of Pattinson’s standings in the world of cinema. Officer Mandel isn’t a role we’d expect of him, it certainly goes against the typecast of his early years, but there are better examples of him breaking the mould. The Lighthouse and Good Time showcase his abilities as a great performer, so why he thought a mediocre collaboration with director Ciro Guerra was the jolt of energy he needed is beyond me.  

Waiting for the Barbarians is infuriating. All the right components are there, with such a tremendous director behind the camera working with some of the most reliable and engaging performers of the modern era. Guerra’s shot composition and lighting are all there, but he fails to flesh out this landscape here. Most surprising of all though is his relative lack of consistency, something I implore those of you interested to see for yourselves, especially when compared to his efforts only five years ago in Embrace of the Serpent. The contrasts are stark and worrying, and it’s clear something changed in the intervening years. A fumbled attempt at breaking into the English-language market leaves little impression, other than a dud note from a director so used to conducting with great beauty.