SETTING aside for a moment the allegations that presently plague his personal life, it would be fair to say that Johnny Depp’s career peaked some time ago. Success in the 90s and noughties hits - Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean and Sweeney Todd among them - have since given way to indulgent flops like Alice Through the Looking Glass. In 2018, his leading turn in The Professor met critical dismay, whilst City of Lies fell fowl of murky lawsuits.

Two years later, Waiting for the Barbarians is no masterpiece but proves a sedate enough return to form.

Based on the novel by South African Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians finds its setting in the frontier outpost of colonialism. Though scenically free of the shackles of time - and all the more allegorical for it - director Ciro Guerra does well to build a tangible sense of place. Coetzee has translated his own text for the screen, whilst the film marks Guerra’s first in the English language. If the result isn’t always earthy, it’s poetic.

Depp joins late, as racially charged interloper Colonel Joll, whose dark soul surfaces in the form of the pitch black sunglasses he wears ‘for the wrinkles’. Joll serves as foil and antithesis to the tale’s narrator, known only as ‘the magistrate’. Mark Rylance takes this part and is superior in his depiction of a man quietly tormented and painfully, insufficiently, virtuous.

Under the magistrate’s guidance, the outpost presents as stagnant. There’s little by way of crime and so the local cells double as storage. This era of quiet bursts with the arrival of Joll, whose ‘patience and pressure’ approach to justice amounts singularly to torture. Not content with inflicting his brutality on the locals alone, it’s not long before Joll is tearing so-called ‘barbarians’ from the surrounding mountains. All in the name of the Empire.

Produced prior to the Black Lives Matter movement, Waiting for the Barbarians can’t help but gain a sense of unexpected urgency when seen today. Most particularly in the depiction of white saviourism at its most ineffective. Rylance’s magistrate makes feeble in-roads and thinks too highly of his successes. In one scene, he washes the feet of the girl he has rescued (Gana Bayarsaikhan) and is all too aware of the religious connotation. It’s not enough. Available on demand now.