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With: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Greta Scacchi, David Dencik, Sam Reid, Harry Melling, Bill Milner
Written by: J.M. Coetzee, based on his novel
Directed by: Ciro Guerra
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 113
Date: 08/07/2020

Waiting for the Barbarians (2020)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Outpost Mortem

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Uneven and sometimes a little rigid, this adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's 1980 novel eventually finds its footing through several forceful performances, some gorgeous passages, and its relevant themes.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, a Magistrate (Mark Rylance) is in charge of a remote outpost, on an unnamed border. He receives a visit from Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), who is determined to ward off a supposed impending attack by the "barbarians." The kindly Magistrate politely disagrees, but Joll heads off into the desert in search of barbarians he can imprison and interrogate.

Later, the Magistrate discovers an abused, homeless woman who has been blinded, and both her legs broken. He takes her to his quarters and tries to nurse her back to health. He vows to bring her back to her people, even though he has fallen in love with her. After a perilous trip through the desert and back, the Magistrate returns to the outpost, only to discover Joll and the vicious Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), and finds that he has been accused of treason.

Adapted by Nobel Prize winner Coetzee himself (his very first screenplay), and directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra (the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent), Waiting for the Barbarians is told in four chapters, named for each season. It starts off a little oddly, given that it's set in no particular time or place. Then Colonel Joll arrives wearing strange, otherworldly sunglasses, and, coupled with the writerly-sounding dialogue, it feels as if the movie could almost be science fiction.

Fortunately, the performers find ways to act through the words, Rylance with his inherent sense of kindness and soft intelligence, and Depp amusingly expressing a seething evil, perfectly controlled and inflexible, expressed only through one of the actor's trademark brisk British accents. Bayarsaikhan has a quietly mesmerizing screen presence, and Pattison lets his steely eyes and jaw project a searing brutality.

The dynamic, well-composed outdoor sequences further improve things, even if the last chapter suddenly includes images of violence and horror that some viewers may wish they could un-see. But it's the final image of Waiting for the Barbarians that haunts, leaving off with the realization that we brought this on ourselves.

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