Describe This Movie In One Farewell to the King Quote:
COLONEL FERGUSON: When you're young you think you're blazing a trail. One day you look down and notice it's a beaten track.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Things fall apart; The center cannot hold.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 3.5 Ray-Ban Wayfarers out of 5.
Better Tagline: "The empire strikes back."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: On an unidentified frontier, an Imperial Magistrate (Mark Rylance) governs his subjects with a gentle (if distracted) hand, rendering impartial decisions and poking around for artifacts. All this changes with the arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), an officer in the Empire's secret police, who immediately commences brutally interrogating the indigenous peoples in order to learn about a rumored imminent "barbarian" invasion.
"Critical" Analysis: J.M. Coetzee's 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, addressed issues of oppression and disinformation, which sadly continue to plague us. The Magistrate is recognizable not only because he reminds us of similar well-meaning yet naive characters found in the works of Conrad, Greene, and Dorothy M. Johnson, but how he reflects our ongoing credulity in the face of atrocity.
And leaving the setting ambiguous was no mistake on Coetzee's part. It adds to the universality of what transpires and — conveniently — frees the filmmakers from any historical nitpickery. From the landscapes and people (and accents), the reference point appears to be the northern reaches of the British Raj, but it doesn't really matter.
Colombian director Ciro Guerra is a fine choice to bring Coetzee's themes to life (the author also wrote the script); his 2015 film Embrace of the Serpent dealt with a similar theme (indigenous folk victimized by colonizers). Also on hand is Oscar-winning (The Killing Fields, The Mission) cinematographer Chris Menges, who renders the frontier's vast ... uh, frontiers with breathtaking desolation.
Waiting for the Barbarians does suffer from some pacing issues. Guerra spends a significant chunk of the film's first half depicting the Magistrate's day-to-day activities (though this is interrupted by Joll's arrival). And a second act sequence involving a "barbarian" woman maimed by Joll that the Magistrate returns to her people drags quite a bit, but still serves to highlight his relatively enlightened attitude.
For whatever reason, the Magistrate is slow to grasp the threat posed by Joll and the Empire's fear of invasion. He chalks the Colonel's appearance up to the periodic hysteria generated in the homeland as "the consequence of too much ease." It's a line of dialogue delivered nonchalantly, but one with clear parallels to modern times.
Joll's description of his "techniques" is chilling, but the Magistrate's inability (or unwillingness) to respond more directly is itself pretty damning. Then again, he doesn't have the benefit of decades of study showing torture's ineffectiveness. Depp is capably malevolent, however. One could almost believe the actor ginned up all his negative publicity to make him more attractive to cast as a villain.
Except, you know, Occam's Razor.
Unfortunately, the movie's ending differs from that of the book, sacrificing the latter's uncertainty for a more stark (and, admittedly, cinematically appealing) result. It still underscores how the Magistrate's is apparently the only person who comprehends the natives' attitude toward the transitory nature of empires.
Rylance does the heavy lifting, and is predictably great, with support from Depp and Gana Bayarsaikhan as "The Girl" (only the bad guys have actual names) in what is a deliberate and sobering look at the limits of empire.
Waiting for the Barbarians is available on Video On Demand.