Review: Mark Rylance brings nuance to the stolid anti-colonialist epic ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’


Mark Rylance is one of the great chameleons of the stage; his recent film work, remarkable in its own right, has hewed to a narrower path. That may be an odd thing to say about an actor whose characters include a jaded Soviet spy, a Steve Jobsian tech visionary and the BFG, but it’s true nonetheless: In each of these roles, whether wearing motion-capture markers or a shaggy blond wig, Rylance distills the essence of a man fascinatingly out of step with his moment. He’s brilliant at conveying disorientation and disillusionment while still retaining a core of unwavering decency — a quality suited to the humanist inclinations of his most frequent director of late, Steven Spielberg.

There is nothing especially Spielbergian about Rylance’s latest, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a dramatically stolid, sun-blasted epic from the Colombian director Ciro Guerra (“Birds of Passage”). But the film, meticulously adapted by the South African writer J.M. Coetzee from his own 1980 novel, takes similarly expert advantage of its star’s world-weary humanity. Rylance plays a man known simply as the Magistrate, a civil servant of what is known simply as the Empire. As in the book, the indeterminate time and place encourage an allegorical reading: Although partly inspired by the apartheid regime under which Coetzee grew up, the Empire could be any sprawling Western civilization bent on domination and conquest.

But the Magistrate, stationed for years at an isolated frontier outpost, is clearly a gentler breed of colonizer. He knows that he and his fellow fortress dwellers are interlopers here, and he maintains a peaceful coexistence with the indigenous nomads who roam the surrounding deserts and mountains. (The nomads are played by Mongolian actors; the film was shot primarily in Morocco.) Crucial to that peace are the Magistrate’s deep knowledge of their language and traditions and his general abhorrence of violence. That puts him almost immediately at odds with a high-ranking Empire official, Col. Joll (Johnny Depp), who arrives at this remote settlement convinced that these “barbarians” pose a threat to the Empire’s supremacy and determines to crush them by any means necessary.


That means brutally interrogating and torturing a few nomads in prison, then sending out a garrison to round up more of their kin and jailing them for crimes unknown. Depp, emitting a death-ray glare from behind dark spectacles, brings a nice chill to the proceedings; so does an unusually vicious Robert Pattinson in the role of Joll’s attack dog. But while both actors are awfully good at playing bad (check out Pattinson’s louche comic swagger in the recent medieval drama “The King”), their presence here feels thin and secondhand; they’re basically there to embody an oppressive authoritarian menace, rather than to prove a more distinctive brand of villainy.

Rylance fares better as the star of the show; naturally gifted at filling silences with meaningful ambiguity, he teases out the Magistrate’s inner conflict and at times finds an emotional equivalent to the book’s introspective first-person narration. Coetzee has lifted a fair amount of the dialogue directly from the page, including a memorably contemptuous line in which the colonel explains how he is able to suss out liars: “A certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth.” That the colonel is himself a cold-blooded liar is scarcely the least of the story’s ironies. Another is that the Magistrate’s honesty, his own transparent lack of guile, will ultimately prove to be his undoing. Well, that and his instinctive sympathy for the persecuted nomads, one of whom (played by Gana Bayarsaikhan) he takes in after she is grievously abused by the colonel’s men.

The Girl, as she is credited in the movie’s definite-article-heavy parlance, is not the first indigenous woman we’ve seen the Magistrate invite into his quarters. Still, the overly polite depiction of their relationship, despite some faintly amorous foot washing by firelight, feels like a tasteful snooze and even a failure of nerve. While “Waiting for the Barbarians” doesn’t sanitize the Magistrate or shy away from his own role in exploiting the locals, the character, already the beneficiary of Rylance’s naturally empathetic screen presence, could have withstood some tougher moral scrutiny. And the movie as a whole might have benefited from some of the scalding comic fury of a film like “Zama,” another recent adaptation of an anti-colonialist novel.

The ravages of imperialism are not a new subject for Guerra: His two most recent epics, “Birds of Passage” (co-directed with Cristina Gallego) and the Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent,” brilliantly charted the destruction and corruption of indigenous Colombian cultures at the hands of capitalist conquerors. The more allegorically inclined “Waiting for the Barbarians” can’t hope to match those earlier films in all their trenchant specificity — or their hallucinatory visual power, despite the artful cinematography here by the veteran Chris Menges. This is proficient, measured filmmaking from a director who has already peered more deeply, and persuasively, into colonialism’s heart of darkness.


‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

(Not rated)

(In English and Mongolian with English subtitles)

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Playing: Available Aug. 7 on VOD platforms