London Film Festival Review – Waiting For The Barbarians (2019)

Award winning director, Ciro Guerra – he of Embrace Of The Serpent fame – returns to the London Film Festival this year with a film that, for him personally, breaks new ground. Waiting For The Barbarians is his first movie almost entirely in the English language and, while he wrote the screenplay for his previous four features, this time he’s concentrated on directing. The writing rests with J M Coetzee, who’s adapted his own novel of the same name.

On the edge of an unnamed empire, a magistrate oversees a border town whose people co-exist in relative peace with the tribes who inhabit the nearby mountains. A visit from a colonel changes all that. He’s convinced that those tribes – he refers to them as barbarians – are a danger to the empire and need to be crushed. Opposed to his brutal methods of interrogation, the magistrate is overruled, eventually incurring the wrath of the military by freeing some badly treated prisoners and then visiting the tribes to return one of them home. Ultimately treated as an enemy of the state, he’s destitute and is almost the only person left when the military decides to leave.

The narrative unfurls slowly, giving Guerra the opportunity to indulge in some less than subtle symbolism but also concentrate on the characters, which is one of the film’s more satisfying aspects. This is mainly thanks to Mark Rylance as the magistrate, who delivers a superlatively low key, delicate and heartfelt depiction of a man of liberal views who is totally out of step with the empire that rules his, and everybody else’s, life. Not that he’s a saint: he has his failings but he also has principles and sticks to them, even when it means his own life is all but destroyed. Yet he’s enough of a realist to appreciate – and may even have smiled wryly – at the irony concluding the film.

The film is bookended by Johnny Depp, who actively lobbied to play the brutal colonel who is convinced about the barbarian threat. If he’d left well alone, peace would have prevailed: as it is, his actions stoke up their already latent anger with grim consequences. Depp does what he’s good at – a remote, enigmatic character, made all the more so by his dark glasses, vain and unsympathetic. There’s a certain amount of relish in the way he parades around in his immaculate uniform but, ultimately, it’s not a performance that leaves much in the way of an impression. Robert Pattinson, in one of his smaller roles this LFF, isn’t perhaps at his best, providing more of an echo of Depp’s colonel, a young officer who’s determined to make his way up the military ladder and get out of this outpost at any cost.

Where Waiting For The Barbarians comes unstuck is in its script. It’s all very heavy handed, starting with the story’s inherent symbolism and seeping into just about every other aspect, starting with the quasi-religious images of the magistrate’s suffering when he falls foul of the military onwards. It demonstrates the disadvantage of having the author of the original novel adapting it for the screen: he’s too close to it, knows it too well and a little more objectivity might have helped matters. As it is, what’s on the screen is cumbersome, over-simplistic and at odds with the subtleties and refinement of Rylance’s performance, which is the main reason for watching.

Yes, it’s an allegory, yes it’s symbolic, and we get all that. We realise it’s an indictment of colonialism and all that goes with it. What we don’t need is to be hit over the head with the messages: it’s exhausting and unnecessary. These themes aren’t new ones for Guerra, incidentally, but this time round he seems to have sadly lost his touch.

Drama, History | Cert: tbc | London Film Festival 6, 7 and 9 October 2019 | Dir. Ciro Guerra | Mark Ryance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Greta Scacchi

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