Film review: Waiting in Barbarians (15)

"Waiting For The Barbarians" regia Ciro Guerra

"Waiting For The Barbarians" regia Ciro Guerra - Credit: Archant

Despite a stellar cast and crew, this heavyweight adaptation of JM Coetzee’s novel is a ponderous allegory that says nothing new about the weakness of empire

"Waiting For The Barbarians" regia Ciro Guerra

"Waiting For The Barbarians" regia Ciro Guerra - Credit: Archant

Waiting is not the obvious approach to take with the Barbarians; surely Running From or Preparing For makes more sense. But after an hour or so you may be Begging For them to rabble around and liven things up in this ponderous literary adaptation.

This is such a heavyweight project, it’s perhaps no surprise that it makes slow progress. There’s a prestigious cast with prestigious Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee adapting his own novel, in the first English language film by prestigious Columbian director Guerra, (Embrace of the Serpent.)

The project has even coaxed octogenarian British cinematographer Chris Menges back behind the camera to shoot his first film in seven years.

He does a majestic job although his rich widescreen images won’t make much of an impression when streamed on your telly.

Rylance is The Magistrate, running a distant desert outpost of The Empire. He has a cushy existence until Depp’s Colonel Joll arrives, convinced that The Barbarians are plotting insurrection - torturing prisoners to find the evidence to prove he’s right. You’re probably wondering which Empire, which Barbarians but, it’s all a bit vague. This is a work too important to bother with specifics. (It looks a bit French foreign legion, a bit Genghis Khan, mixed with some local Morrocan extras, where the film was shot.)

And when allegory comes in through the front gate, subtlety usually sneaks out the back. No doubt Coetzee’s 1980 novel is masterly, but his screenplay merely offers very obvious Iraq War parallels, making points about the inherent weaknesses of empires and the limitations of civilisation that the last two decades of current affairs have already rammed home effectively.

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When he emerges from a coach in his sunglasses, Depp initially looks like he is nursing a severe hangover, but he’s actually fully engaged in the project.

Rylance ‘though carries the film, playing the embodiment of decency and the rule of law, the one sane man in a world going mad.

But Rylance plays him with such shrinking wallflower reticence that his softly spoken decency becomes hateful. He’s such a born-to-lose chump that he takes away any tension; he makes it all too easy for them.

2/5 stars.

Directed by Ciro Guerra. Starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan. Available for Digital download from September 7. Running time: 114 mins.

Go to for a review of Disney’s live-action Mulan remake after 5.00 pm on September 3.