Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, as Officer Mandel, gives us a similar, but more believable, character. The significant difference between the performance is that one feels real, while the other doesn’t. While Depp’s Colonel Joll is all calculated moves and senseless violence, Patterson gives us a more nuanced character. His Officer Mandel is a patriot and a jingoist. Blind to any flaws of the empire, he takes every bit of propaganda as fact. His atrocities are motivated by love and concern, and as such, his actions become more terrifying.
And then there is Mark Rylance, as our actual main character and the focus of Waiting for the Barbarians. The Magistrate represents all the best aspects of colonialism. The idea that a “civilized” people can bring new technology, new medicines, new schooling to less advanced people. He thinks of the locals as his charges—simple creatures in need of his care. He is a quiet and simple man content to spend his days helping the locals and pursuing his passion for archeology. He is justly appalled at the actions of Colonel Joll and Officer Mandel, but at the same time, he is also powerless to stop it.
Rylance gives a restrained but powerful performance as a simple academic completely out of his depth against the amassed power of his own empire. The character of the Magistrate becomes a cracked image of the familiar “White Savior” trope. As the horrors mount and his impotent fury bubbles to the surface, he learns too late that colonialism, no matter how well-intentioned or benign, will always come to this.
“…Guerra does a journeyman’s job in the director’s chair…but hasn’t found his voice yet…”
Honestly, I’m not sure what to say about director Ciro Guerra. If I’m being generous, I might say that he crafts small intimate scenes through which he highlights the nuance of language and gesture inherent in an insular and repressed society. If I’m being less generous, I might say that he shot the whole thing like a BBC series that didn’t have the budget to explore the vast, horrifying, and beautiful expanse of his setting. If I’m being generous, I might say that the pace is methodical and helps to convey the inevitability of the horror ahead. If I’m being less generous, I might say that the pace is distractingly slow. At best, I can only say that Guerra does a journeyman’s job in the director’s chair of Waiting for the Barbarians but hasn’t found his voice yet.
The subject of colonialism is one that is ripe for exploration. As is the nature of power, the dehumanization of rigid caste systems, and the harm that can come from the benign notion that you know what’s better for someone else. Waiting for the Barbarians isn’t a terrible film, it just never delivers on any of its promises.
"…Johnny Depp as Colonel Joll gives his worst performance since... well his last one."