I accidentally stumbled in to a screening of Waiting for the Barbarians during the press screenings at last year’s London Film Festival. I’d completely forgotten about it until the trailer started to pop-up all-over my Twitter feed last week. As we’ve featured it in our latest TrailerChat, I’ve dug out my review notes from September to save you the boredom of having to sit through this film too. (Seriously, I placed it 83 out of 86 new releases I saw in 2019.)
I went into Waiting for the Barbarians with absolutely no knowledge of the film or its content, except that it starred Johnny Depp. What I found was a long, quiet and completely aimless film.
The film focusses on Mark Rylance’s character Magistrate who lives a peaceful existence on a frontier settlement until special forces from the Empire, the Third Bureau arrive, played by Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson.
There are some strong performances to be praised, not least a solid, understated performance from Depp. Those cast as the Barbarians bring an aching human-ness to the nameless roles and you can feel the agony radiating through the screen. The violence within the film is equally powerful and at times tough to watch.
Unfortunately, the majority of the film is Rylance’s Magistrate pottering and conducting a highly questionable relationship with a young barbarian girl who was bought to the settlement for torture. The film tries to frame their relationship as a romantic one, and there are some bizarre feet washing scenes that not only made me uncomfortable, but just went on far too long. At one point someone is able to communicate with the young girl and lets Magistrate know “she hates it her with you” yet he is still convinced he loves her and wants to be with her… it did not sit right with me as a female viewer.
I found myself struggling to stay awake through the films 2 hour runtime which felt far longer in the screen. The entire story felt dated and I had to keep reminding myself this was a new film, not something that had been dug up from decades ago. I came out of the screening wondering what the purpose of the film was. Like the war feared within the story, it all seemed quite pointless.