Producers: Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Michael Fitzgerald and Olga Segura Director: Ciro Guerra Screenplay: J.M. Coetzee Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Deep, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Greta Scacchi, David Dencik, Sam Reid, Harry Melling, Bill Milner, Gursed Dalkhsuren, Tserendagva Purevdorj, Dulguun-Erdene Garamkhand and Adam Bensallah Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
South African J.M. Coetzee is a deservedly celebrated novelist, the first author to win two Booker Prizes and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Yet his books, dependent less on narrative heft than a philosophical-political reflection fed by his South African roots, are of a sort difficult to transfer to the screen. The best attempt to date was certainly “Disgrace” (2008), featuring a remarkable performance by John Malkovich. Now Coetzee has himself written a screenplay based on his remarkable 1985 novel, and Colombian director Ciro Guerra and a strong cast and crew have lent their considerable talents to realizing it. The result is a fascinating but ultimately flawed rumination on the tragedy of imperialism and oppression—subjects that, given his background, are central to his work.
The setting is a remote outpost on the fringes of a great empire, where the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) governs the population in an easygoing fashion, spending much of his time indulging in his avocation as an amateur archaeologist, unearthing the relics of some past civilization in the desert surrounding the town, including wooden blocks on which words are carved in an unknown language. He has little concern about the nomads—called the barbarians by the locals—inhabiting the distant mountains, whom he considers essentially harmless. He even treats two of them—an old man and his young nephew (Gursed Dalkhsuren and Dulguun-Erdene Garamkhand)—gently when they’re incarcerated on charges of stealing sheep.
The Magistrate’s placid existence is abruptly shattered by the arrival of a group of military investigators from the central government, led by the implacable Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp). A rigid, brutal martinet in the mold of Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert, Joll tortures the two prisoners mercilessly to get information on what he presumes is an impending attack—pressure, rigorously applied (as he explains to the Magistrate, who is aghast at his methods), is the only way to elicit honest answers.
Joll then leaves, only to return later with a full complement of troops, ready to invade the barbarian lands as part of a concerted plan of imperial expansion along the frontier. While he is gone, the Magistrate tends to a barbarian woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan), who has been left behind in the city, blinded and with a broken ankle. His almost ritualistic cleansing of her wounds appears to be a sort of personal expiation of the cruelties Joll and his men have inflicted on her people.
He then assembles a small company to return the woman to her people in the mountains. The trek is an arduous one, marked by windstorms and heat, but at last the group encounters a band of barbarians and entrust her to their gruff leader (Tserendagva Purevdorj).
Upon his arrival back at the city, the Magistrate finds that Joll and his second-in-command Mandel (Robert Pattinson) had taken over the place in his absence, and that he was now being treated as a collaborator with the enemy, the subject of humiliating interrogation and torture of the same sort meted out to the barbarians, to the delight of the populace. Meanwhile Joll leads his troops out into the desert to attack the barbarians. Things do not go as he and the government had planned.
As an adaptation of Coetzee’s book, the film by Guerra (“Embrace of the Serpent,” “Birds of Passage”)—his first in English—is nothing if not respectful of the source. As one might expect, Coetzee’s script is extremely faithful to the book; the sole major change comes at the very end, where the original’s enigmatic close is made more explicit. Whether this represents an improvement will be up to readers to decide.
Certainly the adaptation mimics the novel’s solemnly deliberate pacing and narrative obliqueness. And it emphasizes the universality of Coetzee’s critique of the colonial ethos by refusing to be too specific about the locale. The town’s architecture looks North African, and the soldiers’ uniforms vaguely French; but the barbarians have an Asiatic appearance, and the nomads’ dress and language suggest that they are Mongolian. The mixture of dialects among the English speakers also causes uncertainty.
And the cast and crew exhibit utter devotion to the material. Rylance expresses the unnamed Magistrate’s complicated mixture of sloth, curiosity, complicity, horror, lust and honor in a performance of considerable depth, while Depp, looking almost glacé, exudes the offhanded smugness of a professional hatchet man, and Pattinson, in another of his unconventional choices of role, is suitably smarmy as his loyal underling. Bayarsaikhan makes a pathetic, nearly mute victim, and among the supporting cast Greta Scacchi and Adam Bensallah are notable as the Magistrate’s housekeeper Mai and her young grandson, though David Dencik, Sam Reid, Harry Melling and Bill Milner as soldiers on his staff.
Those four certainly endure a good deal accompanying the Magistrate in his journey through the wilds to return the woman to her people—sequences shot by cinematographer Chris Menges in a style recalling “Lawrence of Arabia” on a smaller scale. Production designers Domenico Sica and Crispian Sallis have constructed a convoluted town reflective of the story’s mixture of ideas (the Magistrate’s quarters, especially his library, nicely mirror his character), while Jacopo Quadri’s lapidary editing captures the tone of Coetzee’s writing. The background score by Giampiero Ambrosi is appropriately mournful.
This is one of those films that are easier to admire than to embrace, but it captures Coetzee’s cerebral approach and oblique style in a way that should be especially appreciated by the novel’s readers.