Waiting For The Barbarians (2020) | Review

Waiting for the Barbarians had its premiere at Venezia '76, travelling through the Deauville, San Sebastián, Zurich and London Film Festival before landing itself a home this past week on digital download.

Waiting for the Barbarians is quietly told over four seasons starting in Winter when a merciless Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives in the Empire of which Mark Rylance is the Magistrate. The Empire is a colonised nation that has settled on land owned by people only ever referred to as "Barbarians" who arrive in town to find food and medicine. They are captured and tortured under the wrath of Colonel Joll, leading the Magistrate to wane his loyalties to the ruthless Empire. He is the warmth against the icy touch of Colonel Joll, taking the time to remain compassionate even though he is initially complicit in the violence taking place on his watch.

His turning point starts when a character only ever referred to as "The Girl" arrives in the Empire. She has been blinded, burned and captured by the soldiers, and Rylance's horror eventually leads him to take her back to her family, having formed a one-sided bond through circumstance.
The film treads a fine line of leaning into a white-saviour narrative, although Rylance's behaviour isn't necessarily exalted. He is displaying necessary human empathy that allows the audience to find a surrogate for themselves in the story, going through a journey of realising that sometimes action must come sooner and that remaining complacent for so long is also an act of violence.

This revelation leads Rylance down a path of finding new ways to rebel against the town. His outrage at injustice causes him to become the object of ridicule. He is outcast and deprived the same way the "Barbarians" are, his status no longer benefitting him. Together, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) and Colonel Joll use him as an example to others.

The film is challenging to unpack with complex themes getting somewhat glazed over. J. M. Coetzee adapted the script from his 1980's novel, and usually, writers adapting from their previous repertoire is a recipe for success, but this one falls through the cracks slightly. It is bleak and unsettling and not necessarily in a way that always lands. Rylance is fantastic, as he always is, but perhaps making him the focal point of a narrative that felt like it was bigger than him was a hindrance.

Until next time

Waiting for the Barbarians is available on Digital Download from September 7th 2020.

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