Mark Rylance is largely considered one of the great chameleon-esque actors of the stage; his recent film work, while remarkable in its own right, has interestingly hewed to a narrower path. That may be an odd thing to say about an actor whose characters include a jaded Soviet spy (Bridge of Spies), a Steve Jobs-like tech visionary (Ready Player One), and a big friendly giant (The BFG), but it’s true nonetheless: In each of these roles, whether wearing a motion-capture suit or a shaggy blond wig, Rylance distills the essence of a man fascinatingly out of step with his moment. He’s utterly brilliant at conveying disorientation and disillusionment while still retaining a core of unwavering decency — a quality suited to the humanist inclinations of his most frequent director of late, Steven Spielberg. There is nothing especially Spielbergian, though, about Rylance’s latest, Waiting for the Barbarians, a ponderous anti-colonialism epic from Colombian director Ciro Guerra. But the film, meticulously adapted by South African writer J.M. Coetzee from his own 1980 novel, takes a similarly expert advantage of its star’s world-weary humanity. Rylance plays a man known as the Magistrate, a civil servant of what is known simply as the Empire. As in the book, the undefined time and place encourage an allegorical reading: Although partly inspired by the apartheid regime under which Coetzee grew up, the Empire could be any sprawling Western civilization bent on domination and conquest.
At the same time, Coetzee’s novel, with its measured, interiorized voice and sparse, incrementally devastating narrative, was widely considered a difficult and unobvious fit for a film adaptation. After a slightly stiff first act, however, Waiting for the Barbarians gradually gains in poetry and power, while Mark Rylance’s lead performance gives the proceedings a quiet but firm moral core. One of the other difficulties in its adaptation is having to visually articulate the atmospheric but geographically elusive Somewhereland of Coetzee’s novel. The mythic ambiguity of the novel’s setting is presented by a melding of geographic elements. The frontier territory of the Empire, the small, sun-blasted village over which Rylance’s Magistrate softly runs appears to be somewhere in the North African desert (majority of the film was shot in Morocco), yet all the indigenous people are native-speaking Mongolians.
The film is set into place when the Magistrate’s peaceful administration is rudely disrupted by a visit from Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), a vindictive, reactionary officer from a secret-service branch of the Empire, sent to investigate the possibility of an attack by indigenous forces. The Magistrate sees no risk if they continue to live passively; Joll’s idea of proactive defense, on the other hand, is to lead a notional fact-finding expedition into the desert, returning with a captive band of “barbarians” to imprison and torture. When Joll and his minions depart as quickly as they swept in, the Magistrate is left to deal with the fallout of vicious war crimes in which he had no say, though he’s hardly exempt from charges of colonial complicit — least of all when he falls for an abused, semi-blinded indigenous woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) and finds himself torn between freeing her and making her his property.
This is all very complex, richly emblematic material rife with thorny political conflicts and hypocrisies, entwined around an unspoken emotional baseline of desolate loneliness and guilt — with Guerra and Coetzee working hard to try and translate the subtleties while still being deliberate and muted. While Coetzee’s script pushes the film’s opening bits into some stilted wordiness, Rylance works magic with his shambling integrity and fills all of the film’s long silences with meaningful ambiguity, teasing out the Magistrate’s inner conflict with incredible precision. Depp is required to work in a narrower icy-droll range, emitting a menacing glare behind steampunk-style spectacles. It’s a range that, frankly, is a pleasure to see Depp work well in; finally capturing and playing something that steps out of being from a cartoonish land.
The film, though, is interestingly divided into four seasonal chapters, and takes a welcome breath once Colonel Joll and his crew depart and the Magistrate’s inner life comes to the fore. As does a reparative journey into the unforgiving desert, with the Magistrate’s crew and reluctant lover in tow. It’s there which we see Guerra really in his element, as he largely eschews dialogue for gestures and delirious environmental menace. Working in lush, vivid calmness, cinematographer Chris Menges really works wonders throughout, capturing engrossing shadows in moments of loneliness and hot-to-the-touch richness in moments of vastness. As Waiting for the Barbarians progresses, it steadily accrues a grave, violent anger over encroaching systems of oppression that proves infectiously troubling and enraging, as Guerra’s direction gets even wiser and more detail oriented. As Joll returns with aggressive reinforcements — including a magnetically snarling Robert Pattinson as Joll’s attack dog — a host of grotesque human violations are strikingly presented in the foreground, while in the background, books begin to progressively vanish from shelves without notice or commentary. With its stilted opening aside, Waiting for the Barbarians is a film that slowly sheds its words to progress into something of a stirring effect, all toward a finale that largely gazes upon colonial carnage in stunned silence, as despots are disarmed, soldiers become scarecrows, and ending with a breathtaking final shot that looks into a rocky future of apocalyptic unknowns. Engulfed in evocative stillness and world-weary detail, Waiting for the Barbarians finds engrossing anger in its brooding atmosphere for a richly allusive, mythic-like look at the devastation of colonialism.
Waiting for the Barbarians is available on VOD