Review: Waiting for the Barbarians

Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp in “Waiting for the Barbarians.”

Dir. Ciro Guerra. 114 minutes.

On the fringe of an unnamed empire, an unnamed Magistrate (Mark Rylance) awaits the arrival of nomadic barbarians who migrate through the area once every few decades. The Magistrate would prefer to allow the barbarians to pass through; however, his outpost is thrown into disorder by Col. Joll (Johnny Depp), a brutal martinet bent on subduing all native resistance.

J. M. Coetzee, who adapted his own novel for the screen, is South African — however, the mildly fabulous world of “Waiting for the Barbarians” is obviously inspired by French North Africa. With richly designed sets and costumes that lend specificity and reality to nameless non-locations, “Waiting for the Barbarians” is reminiscent of “Game of Thrones” in its wealth of not-quite-historical detail.

Rylance, as the Magistrate, glows with a quiet affability that helps keep the film watchable, even during stretches when it’s apparently too busy being symbolic to deliver a followable narrative. Depp, on the other hand, does what he’s been doing since 2005 — don makeup and a weird costume to deliver an intricately kooky but skin-deep performance. Col. Joll should be enigmatic, threatening, Mephistophelian — instead, Depp appears as a kind of Nazi Willy Wonka. Robert Pattinson also appears briefly as a sneering lackey to Col. Joll.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a film more interested in aesthetics than story or theme — and no one wants to pay $7 just to receive a shallow rebuttal of antique imperialist ideology. However, it’s a gorgeous-looking movie, anchored by a gentle and understated performance by Mark Rylance — enough to justify spending a few dollars and a few hours of your time.