Review: Exceptional cast try to salvage stiff 'Waiting for the Barbarians'
Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Hard to believe, but there’s a film out this week featuring three heavy hitters: Oscar winner Mark Rylance, Oscar nominee Johnny Depp and the forthcoming Dark Knight himself Robert Pattinson. The film is “Waiting for the Barbarians” - which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year - and the strong trio of actors manage to salvage what’s left of a stiff narrative that, like the title, leaves you waiting for more. Make no mistake, Rylance, and Pattinson elevate “Barbarians” to a watchable pedigree and at the same time it’s also a mixed bag. How to combat excellent performances with a plot derived of any spark?
At the center of the film is Rylance, as the magistrate of an imperial outpost for an unnamed empire. He’s older and wiser in his years, the type of guy who had plenty of time to reflect on his views and question higher authority. His daily tasks are upended when Colonel Joll (Depp) strolls into town for a routine inspection and creates havoc.
Joll's tactics and methods don’t align with the magistrate, whereas Joll tortures prisoner “barbarians,” the former would rather talk to them peacefully. The line is drawn in the sand when Joll blinds a woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) for not incriminating her father and thus begins a new journey of self discovery for the magistrate. The barbarians don’t belong to any specific race or region (one aspect of the film that’s actually terrific) and that gets to the root of what the film is trying to say: colonization can happen anywhere.
On paper, this sounds like a winning combination of story and performance and should make “Waiting for the Barbarians” a must-see, but the experience of the film is slow and uninteresting. It’s ironic that “Waiting” is in the title because that’s all I felt while watching the picture: I was “waiting” for something eventful to take shape. There are some brilliant scenes and even though Pattinson doesn’t show up until the final 45 minutes, his energy and presence gives the third act some much needed spunk.
Screenwriter J.M. Coetzee struggles to turn his 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature into something worthwhile. You would think director Ciro Guerra would have noticed all the dead-air in the picture, because I’m fairly certain you could skip over 50 minutes in the middle section and not miss any plot developments.
Rylance and Pattinson share a few colorful scenes in the films better half, Rylance with his rebellious edge and eagerness to help others and Pattinson, with his pissed-off grin and sadistic smile, are a perfect foil. At one point Rylance’s character asks Pattinson: “How do you eat?” Referring to his appetite after torturing and murdering innocent civilians and Pattinson just stares him down. It’s the type of potboiler tension missing from the majority of the film and makes you want to see an entire picture just about their relationship. Which leaves Depp, scowling and ranting about sunglasses, left on the cutting room floor and outmatched by his livelier co-stars.
WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS will be available on digital platforms starting Friday August 7th.