Writer: J.M. Coetzee
Director: Ciro Guerra
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Humans have always been afraid of otherness, somewhere beyond the frontier there are wild creatures waiting to ensnare us. Just who are the monsters is a concept that fills literature and popular culture, from Orwell and Atwood to Dr Who and now J.M. Coetzee. The notion that true barbarism is the preserve of the civilised is explored in Ciro Guerra’s new film Waiting for the Barbarians as a small town on the edge of Empire lets the monsters in.
The archaeology-loving Magistrate manages a peaceful co-existence with the barbarians in a frontier town where neither side interferes with the other until the sudden arrival of Colonel Joll upsets the balance as he tortures captives and creates an unsubstantiated fear. Refusing to comply, the Magistrate falls for a Barbarian girl savagely beaten by Joll’s men, but when he decides to break the line and return her to her tribe, he opens the gates to more than her freedom.
Ciro Guerra’s film adapted from Coetzee’s novel creates a fascinating tone, one that slowly builds a sense of claustrophobia and disintegration as the small community starts to believe the rumours of barbarian uprisings. The police clampdown represented by Joll is shown in struggle against the Magistrate’s more liberal inclusonist view and as the two contend, Guerra tightens the noose as the events Joll set in motion start to take on a momentum of their own.
Chris Menges’ cinematography is stunning, a rich and vibrant desert world that reflects the psychological intensity of the story and depicts the unforgiving beauty of the landscape as an additional character – remote, impossible to traverse and somehow reflective of the brutal edge to humanity that this film explores so well. There are nods to great desert films including Lawrence of Arabia in the longshots and broad vistas, while the frightening sandstorm and rolling dunes hint of The English Patient.
Mark Rylance offers a layered and complex performance as the quietly spoken and decent Magistrate who barely imposes himself on his own life never mind the townspeople and beyond. The obsession he develops for the injured barbarian girl is creepy and this slightly drawn-out chapter creates a dip in momentum as he repeatedly washes her feet, but Rylance is very good in the second half as his own world view is violently crushed when he seeks to defend goodness from the encroaching hoard.
In one of his rare straight roles, Johnny Depp is intimidating as sunglass-wearing Colonel Joll, given a smidgen of humanity but willing to do anything to subdue the threat he perceives, and so interesting to see him go up against his perfect opposite in the Magistrate. Robert Pattinson is also having a very good London Film Festival and here another small but valuable performance as a cruel deputy determined to humiliate and defeat the Magistrate.
The idea that civilisation opens the floodgates is something that Guerra makes so clear, that this once peaceable region is destroyed by paranoia and the aggressive actions of Joll and his men that forces their once invisible enemy to retaliate. It gives a wonderful duality to the film’s title and it’s not just the Magistrate waiting for the barbarian hoards to attack his town, because the monsters are already here.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October