Review: Waiting for the Barbarians

Last year, director Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent, The Wind Journeys) made furore with his Birds of Passage (original title: Pájaros de Verano) and won nineteen prestigious awards with it. Pretty sure that his newest film Waiting for the Barbarians, which is also his first English-language feature, will receive the same success. Not only because of the superb performance of Mark Rylance but also because he created a visually attractive, emotionally and stunningly crafted movie.

The compassionate Magistrate versus the frigid colonel

The unnamed Magistrate (Mark Rylance), who’s working in a distant outpost near the frontier, is living a humble and down to earth life. There’s not much going on his village and so he enjoys his spare time by doing some writing. However, that peace is disturbed by the arrival of colonel Joll (Johnny Depp). Despite the Magistrate good intentions, the colonel has everything but that. No interrogation tactic is too cruel for him to make sure that every Barbarian is serving ‘justice’. After concluding that Barbarian people are indeed savages, the colonel decides he has seen enough for now and says goodbye to the village.

The colonel might be gone but the troubles are still present for the magistrate. After encountering a homeless (and Barbarian) girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan) in his village, he decides to take her in. Not only because he’s good to everyone but also because she had to endure a hard time by the hands of the colonel. She seems a closed book at first but after opening up to the Magistrate about herself, her family and her future, he wants a future with her. Sadly, she wants to return to her family. Even though it would be against his people their beliefs, the Magistrate decides to help her to get back to the Barbarians. However, both his town as well as the colonel see this as treason. What will await him when he returns home?

Mark Rylance outclasses everyone

If this story sounds familiar, then you’ve probably read the novel by the South African-born writer J. M. Coetzee. His work was the inspiration for this film. Just like the book by Coetzee itself, this movie has many great things to offer.

One of them is the strong performance of Rylance (Dunkirk, Ready Player One). We haven’t seen a lot of actors who can play such a modest, honest and poignant role as he does in such an outstanding way. To some, it might seem that he’s underplaying it but that’s where his brilliance comes in. Big emotions subtlety performed. Who’s absolutely not subtle is colonel Joll, played by Depp (City of Lies, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a dark and mysterious way. His character is the opposite of Rylance’s. A cold-blooded and cruel colonel who only wants it his way. While we don’t see much emotions of Depp, due to the nature of the colonel, he still puts on a convincing display.

He’s another of those big names attached to this film but it takes a long while before we see a glimpse of Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse, High Life). While we, from the bottom of our hearts, want to believe the powerful traits of his officer Mandel, it’s hard to do that. Not only because of Pattinson’s laughter but also because he lacks a little bit of charisma in this movie. His performance might have its flaws but it was still very enjoyable to watch. The female touch and emotions are provided by Gana Bayarsaikhan (Wonder Woman, Ex Machina). She brings an even more vulnerable and touching vibe to this movie which certainly balances out the masculinity in this film.

Congratulations to the entire crew!

The production crew behind Waiting for the Barbarians (source: IMDB)

Despite the performances being on point, they’re not elements that stand out in this film. No, it‘s clear that the teams behind the camera are the ones that excel in this film. There’s no doubt in our minds that the members of the makeup department are really the ones that brought this film to life. The gashing wounds, the painful injuries or the deep cuts. With that in mind, we want to say that this movie isn’t for the light-hearted. We also certainly want to applaud cinematographer Chris Menges and location manager Youssef Abagourram. They were able to bring together beautiful, eye-catching and diverse landscapes, which light up the big screen in a gorgeous way. You have to stay until the very end to see one of the most beautiful made scenes in this movie.

Captivating, intriguing and splendid movie led by Mark Rylance

Waiting for the Barbarians is divided into four different segments, which represent the four seasons. They all have delightful stories to tell, stories you need to see and hear. Want to catch this captivating, intriguing and splendidly made film that included a dazzling performance from Rylance? Well, then you’re in luck. This movie will be screened at the BFI Film Festival London on Sunday the 6th, Monday the 7th and Wednesday the 8th of October.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

(This review was written as part of Big Picture Film Club’s coverage of the BFI London Film Festival 2019)

Waiting for the Barbarians (Teaser Clip)

Also Read: Ad Astra (Review)

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