Waiting for the Barbarians is a film with a message. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, plenty of films have messages, ideas or philosophies they want to communicate with the audience. The problem here is that the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.
The message of Waiting for the Barbarians is… COLONIALISM IS BAD. Well, yes, I don’t think many people would argue with that these days, but this film REALLY wants you to know that colonialism is a bad, bad thing. It hammers this home in the form of the two thoroughly nasty pieces of work that are Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) and his underling Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), who arrive one day to ruin the life of the unnamed Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who runs a small fort in the back end of nowhere.
What starts off as a seemingly innocuous case of sheep rustling escalates into accusations of conspiracy and treason, Joll seeing enemies everywhere he turns, and seeking “the truth” by brutalising the local population to force confessions of misdeeds from them. The barbarians, you see, must be brought to heel through the swift application of force. I mean that always works right? Shhh. Nobody tell him about Afghanistan!
The poor Magistrate, meanwhile, finds his world turned on its head, every little thing he has done now viewed with suspicion and disdain. The girl he took in off the street and nursed back to health? She is either his concubine, or his contact with the barbarian forces to facilitate his treason. His interest in local archaeology? Why, it must be another way of passing secret messages to the enemy! When all you have a is a hammer, everything most definitely looks like a nail.
There are three main characters in the film. The aforementioned Magistrate, who is played superbly by Mark Rylance, is a mild, somewhat meek man, interested in maintaining harmony through working with the local tribes. At the same time, he’s weak when he should be strong, backing down from potential confrontation when he should be decisive. He paints the Magistrate as a man who doesn’t like to rock the boat, but he manages to tread that fine line, making him a sympathetic figure rather than one of ridicule.
Johnny Depp’s performance is a reminder that the man can actually act when he’s not swanning about and making a fool of himself. Joll is a stoic, taciturn man, utterly convinced of the rightness of his cause, cold and untouchable. The longest conversation he has in the entire film is when he extols his interrogation methods to the Magistrate, explaining that to get to the truth, truth which has “a certain tone”, you have to apply “pressure”. First you get lies, so you apply pressure, more lies, more pressure until eventually the truth is revealed. Pressure, it turns out, is a terribly polite description for torture.
The third character is ‘The Girl’, played by Gana Bayarsaikhan, a beggar blinded and maimed, it turns out, by Colonel Joll during his previous excursions in search of enemies. She is strong, sympathetic, enigmatic, an object of fascination and shame for the Magistrate who takes her in and tends for her, returning her to health and ultimately reuniting her with her people. His relationship with her, in the end, is used as simply another nail in the coffin of his betrayal by Joll and Mandel, regardless of his motives.
Robert Pattinson is also in this. He doesn’t really get a great deal to work with as he’s only in the last third of the film, but he leaves an impression. Mandel initially appears to be a firm, somewhat officious man, but it turns out that he really does enjoy his work. His work is hurting people. His brutalising of the Magistrate is a pivotal point, with Rylance all nervous eyes and twitches anytime he’s in a scene with Pattison.
It’s just a shame that the film really never moves beyond ‘civilisation bad, nomads good’. Is this worth buying? Not really. Is it worth watching on your streaming service of choice? Yes, unless you can watch Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Bloom, which is a far better film if you want to see bands of nomads wrecking shit.
Waiting for the Barbarians is out now on Digital Download.