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Review: Waiting For The Barbarians – “A fascinating watch”

Waiting For The Barbarians is directed by Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent). Based on the 1980 novel of the same name by J. M. Coetzee, it questions the legitimacy of colonialism. This is heavy going stuff. Probably not a Friday night popcorn flick, if and when your local cinema opens up, then.

The Magistrate of an isolated frontier settlement on the border of an unnamed empire looks forward to an easy retirement until the arrival of Colonel Joll, whose task it is to report on the activities of the ‘barbarians’ and on the security situation on the border. Joll conducts a series of ruthless interrogations, which leads the Magistrate to question his loyalty to the empire

Start to scan the cast list though and your eyebrows raise.

Mark Rylance. Johnny Depp. Robert Pattinson.

A little male-centric, sure. But wow. That’s some cast. If your pace is going to be sedate, your dialogue long and heavy on metaphor and allegory, you’re going to need it to be cast to perfection.

Thankfully, it is.

If you can put Depp’s private life to one side — as hard as that is at the moment — he casts a shadow across the whole film.

A fascinating actor, he has frustratingly become a bit of a caricature recently (seemingly not able to detach himself from Tim Burton, even if it’s not a Tim Burton film). However, it’s surely not even up for debate that when he’s on his game, he’s exceptional. Here he does exactly what’s required.

He’s mid-caricature, I would say. A careful balance of the quirky and regal. He wears Burton (or Hunter S. Thompson?) inspired glasses that become an early theme, but other than that, he plays it straight.

The film is all the better for it as he proves a solid foil to Rylance, who effortlessly carries the film and is essentially its heartbeat and humanity.

Rylance’s recent run of Bridge Of Spies, BFG and Dunkirk says all you need to know about his range and class. He overnight became one of my favourite actors, who crucially made great choices.

Breaking away from being Spielberg’s muse, he’s on screen for the bulk of the two-hour runtime here. He is essential to helping it remain humane and grounded.

Questioning Depp’s interrogation methods, more than enough to keep the film relevant, in today’s times. Keeping locations unknown only helps. This could be anywhere in 2020, where power is wealth, controlled and taken accordingly.

Fans of the new Batman may be disappointed that Pattinson’s screen time is limited, but he shows again what an accomplished actor he has become since sparkling in a different way, in his early career choices. I can’t wait for him and Kristen Stewart to reconnect later in their careers, by the way. Maybe even in a DC film. What great careers they’ve carved out.

It’s safe to say this isn’t for everyone. The film is broken into chapters and people might want more clarity than it’s willing to give. That would be missing the point though. It relishes its own ambiguity.

It feels a worthy film — beautifully shot, with it all feeling refreshingly real amongst the prevalent crash bang wallop of OD’ing on CGI.

But the trade-off is that it is slow. It is mature. It feels longer than it is and you’re signing up to watch a fascinating approach to acting.

I wouldn’t say the script stood out, but the story remains relevant. As a character study — of actors, as much as the actual characters, on show — it’s a fascinating watch.

When The Girl does arrive, 40 minutes in, you’ll know if you’re in for the long haul. I’d say it would be a shame not to be at this point. Especially as we continue to discover with Rylance, the extent that Depp — and the (evil) Empire is willing to go, to get what it wants.

Waiting For The Barbarians is out on August 7th, on digital and on-demand.

As with Greyhound, it’s a shame it’s scale — albeit intimate — isn’t experienced on the big screen. But in 2020, we’ll take what films we can get.

A new one with Rylance, Depp and Pattinson, shouldn’t be scoffed at.

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