2020 has not been a good year for the British Empire. The Black Lives Matter movement has only served to highlight the abuses, bloodshed and oppression which was integral to Britannia ruling the waves. However, merely removing symbols of our past will not magically improve the present. We need to address all aspects of our history to understand the context and our colonial legacy. Ciro Guerra’s new film, Waiting for the Barbarians, tackles colonialism through the prism of an imaginary power.
At the edge of an unnamed empire, a magistrate (Mark Rylance) is in charge of a frontier outpost. Whilst there are occasional minor squabbles, he feels that life is peaceful and just; hoping to serve out his time quietly. That all changes with the arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), who determined to find evidence of wrongdoing, extracts a tortured confession from a prisoner and uses it as an excuse to wage a campaign against their tribe.
After the success of Guerra’s previous films (Embrace of the Serpent, Birds of Passage), there were high hopes for Waiting for the Barbarians. Adapted by J.M. Coetzee from his own novel, it largely feels surpassingly flat and routine. The story itself is a familiar one. Rylance is good, Robert Pattinson is wasted and Depp dials-in the same performances he’s been giving for years. The ‘barbarians’ themselves feel like mere pawns in a battle between altruism and oppression. Whilst Waiting for the Barbarians isn’t bad, per se, it just feels rather prosaic and unimaginative.
Waiting for the Barbarians is available on Digital Download from 7th September.