London Film Festival 2019 – Part 3

Imperialism, breaking up, and ending one’s life


Colonel Joll and the Magistrate
Joll & Magistrate (courtesy of

Waiting for the Barbarians (2019)
Director: Ciro Guerra. Featuring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson

Allegory, it’s all allegory. At least, that has been an interpretation of the 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee, who is also this film’s screenwriter. And although the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature committee called his book ‘a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror,’ its film iteration is more, and less, than this.
Mark Rylance is the Magistrate in an indeterminate garrison town on the edge of a putative Empire. Beyond the fort’s walls live nomadic peoples whom empire loyalists call barbarians. The Magistrate is a quasi-military figure seeming to rule the town benevolently, but under the social system of colonialism not democratically.
However, benevolent dictatorship’s thin kid gloves give way to the iron fist of full-blown authoritarianism upon the arrival in the area of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp). While the Magistrate speaks English like a southerner, Joll does so with a kind of Mitteleuropa accent, dishonestly associating each with beneficence and maleficence respectively. This might find reflection in a liberal’s interpretation of the supposed liberal/conservative divide in Coetzee’s 1980 apartheid South Africa between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites, but in today’s world it veers dangerously toward bolstering a myth-based English nationalism.
However, Joll’s reign of terror, torturing and killing nomads to destroy their society, extends to attacking the Magistrate: the colonial regime turns on itself. Its unexplained move to greater oppression by Joll’s forces bears the obvious, clearly hubristic danger to its own existence, since the nomads unite against this foul enemy.
Beneath everything in Waiting for the Barbarians is a truth: the real barbarians are imperialists who wage war on people they label ‘barbarians’. The question is if such a Big Lie can still work: current world events suggest it can. Although set in an earlier, if fictitious, era rife with colonial empires sprouting racist ideas as justification for colonialism, our post-colonial world suffers modern equivalents. Leaders of the UK and USA wage a ‘war on terror’, for example, though they themselves are the world’s biggest terrorists.


Grace & Edward on the cliffs
Grace & Edward (courtesy of

Hope Gap (2019)
Director: William Nicholson. Featuring Bill Nighy, Annette Bening, Josh O’Connor, Sally Rogers

When a relationship breaks down, the pain can be a dull ache or sharp and acute. If one partner is more aware of the extent of their problems a rupture is much more of a shock for the other. And so it proves for Edward (Bill Nighy) and Grace (Annette Bening), long married with a grown son, Jamie (Josh O’Connor), who lives elsewhere.
But just because matters come to a critical head, fond feelings do not necessarily abate on either side. This Edward shows in his own way by inviting Jamie down to support Grace. Grace’s shock at such profound rejection is all the greater because her Roman Catholic faith has prevented her from accepting the possibility of separation and divorce, and to which she gives voice. However, nothing can convince Edward to stay even one hour more in the family home.
Two bursts of Kyrie Eleison (‘Lord have mercy’) in the background are a truly desperate accompaniment to the marriage crisis. Grace finds acceptance hard and urges Jamie to persuade his father to relent, but Edward is adamant. He is committed to single mum Angela (Sally Rogers), a parent of a child at the school where he teaches. He has been having a year-long affair with her, after all.
Eventually, a mild confrontation seems to help Grace gracefully start to come to terms with her new existence.
Bening excels in her role with humanity, expressing her character’s bravery and growing self-sufficiency in the face of deceit and betrayal.


Photo of last dinner
Photo of last dinner (courtesy of

Blackbird (2019)
Director: Roger Michell. Featuring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Sam Neill, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan

How do you leave this world, if you must? There are no templates for this. Honest love and an earnest desire to fit oneself for the end must play their part. But in face of a debilitating illness that saps the ability to give physical effect to the need to conclude one’s life, then an early decision to take action may be required.
In such terminal decline, Lily (Susan Sarandon) has made a decision to invite her grown daughters, plus her old, close friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan), to join her and her husband Paul (Sam Neill) for a farewell party/parting. Daughters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska) bring their significant others – a husband and a lesbian partner respectively. Jennifer’s teen son Jonathan (Anson Boon) comes too.
A chamber piece of strength and compassion about someone coming to terms with leaving life and their loved ones’ coming to terms with them leaving.
All too realistically, tensions erupt in such a stressed atmosphere, since Lily is exiting the very next day. Humanity demands a settled end, and a modus vivendi (ironically) is achieved. The understandable, but selfish, desire of those left behind to keep Lily with them regardless is overcome, painful though it is. Sarandon in particular leads an empathetic cast in a poignant essay in understanding certain death and the real legacy that humans leave behind them.

Jim Moody