You expect fireworks when you cast Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson and Mark Rylance in a political allegory about a nameless empire that savagely exploits the indigenous people in its desert colony. That the sparks fly only intermittently in Waiting for the Barbarians may be due to the heavy lifting required by the great Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent, Birds of Passage) as he adapts South African author J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel to the screen with a first-time script by the Nobel laureate himself. In his first film in English, Guerra trades narrative momentum for a deep dive into geopolitics. But once the actors get the film on its feet — which, sorry to say, it takes a while — the anti-imperialist analogy to white supremacy through human history takes hold and blisters.
Theater legend and Bridge of Spies Oscar-winner Rylance is a standout as the character known only as the Magistrate, who runs a remote outpost on the edge of nowhere. The British actor builds the role in layers, allowing us to see and understand the Magistrate’s daily routine as he negotiates a relative peace with the native population. Though he takes orders from a totalitarian regime, the officer grounds his actions in a benevolence easily read in Rylance’s gentle squint.
All traces of compassion vanish with the entrance of Colonel Joll, a fierce martinet played by Depp with the sadistic relish the role requires. The dark, circular glasses he wears gives Joll the look of a menacing owl ready to put the Magistrate on notice. The Colonel has heard talk of rebellion among the locals, and the empire is ready to strike back by any means necessary. “Pain is truth, and that will be the end of it,” says Joll.
The Magistrate is appalled by the idea of torture as a default position, but seems helpless to hold back the tide. The situation escalates when Joll and his right-hand, Officer Mandel (Pattinson, oozing rage), turn up the heat. Ensuing war crimes prompt the Magistrate to intervene to save a native woman, played by Gana Bayarsaikhan (Ex Machina), who has been beaten and blinded by her oppressors. Though the Magistrate’s interest in the woman was sexual in the book, the film uses it to establish an emotional connection that defies the idea of a faceless enemy.
The desert outpost, mostly shot in Morocco by the gifted cinematographer Chris Menges (a two-time Oscar winner for his camera work on The Killing Fields and The Mission), becomes a powerful symbol of human decency trying to hold out under the brutal siege of alleged law and order. It’s thuddingly obvious who the real barbarians are.