Writers: Mark Bomback, Bathsheba Doran, David Harrower, James MacInnes, David Mackenzie
Director: David Mackenzie
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Every nation has its myths and heroes, ones they return to again and again to explain their identity. England recently discovered that its Empire heritage is still ingrained in spirit if not in practice, while Scotland looks to its pre-medieval freedom fighters to sustain its own enduring question of independence. With the political landscape remarkably different since the nation voted to remain in the UK, David Mackenzie’s new film about Robert the Bruce will continue to fan the flames of IndyRef2.
The style and approach Mackenzie employs will take you right back to the 1990s heyday of period-adventure films like this one. Back then it was American good guys playing any number of oppressed nationalities versus English pantomime baddies. Hero Kevin Costner saw off the evil Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1991 epic Robin Hood Prince of Thieves; later that same decade Mel Gibson inflamed plenty of Scottish hearts as William Wallace in Braveheart(1995) against Patrick McGoohan’s King Edward I, before fronting-up to Jason Isaacs as Colonel William Tavington in the execrable The Patriot.
These are the films that Outlaw King looks to for inspiration, placing the unlikely casting of Chris Pine as good guy Robert the Bruce up against the appalling yoke of Stephen Dillane’s Edward I and Billy Howle as his son the Prince of Wales, later Edward II. Opening in 1306, Edward I has brutally subdued a Scottish uprising and forced Robert Bruce to swear fealty along with other surviving nobles. Trying to return to a normal life, Robert is gifted the King’s goddaughter Elizabeth as his new wife and the pair accept their political marriage.
Meanwhile, realising his mistake and with a true-blood claim to the Scottish throne, Robert assassinates his rival to name himself King of Scotland. To beat the English Robert must create unity among the disparate nobility and as chivalry falls by the wayside a new form of warfare is born, one that might just win Scotland its independence.
Mackenzie’s film has had quite a drubbing since it premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, and now arriving in London, it’s not quite as bad as its reviews suggest. There is a familiar story, too po-faced perhaps, which doesn’t deliver many surprises but keeps its 132-minute narrative motoring forward while Mackenzie maintains reasonable control of the story’s various strands. The battle and fight sequences are plentiful and enjoyable, building-up to a well-timed final encounter at Loudoun Hill with plenty of gore, blood-lust and the muddy carnage that battles generally become.
Where the film particularly suffers is in characterisation – the problem of five different writers. The usually likeable Chris Pine is a charisma void as Robert Bruce (referred to as Robert theBruce for reasons that are never explained), he looks the part certainly, complete with dodgy mullet hair-extensions, and does plenty of low mumbling, but there is little in his performance to explain why anyone believed in Bruce enough to risk their necks to make him king, or, when his own band is reduced to just 40 men, why others flocked to his cause. There is little to root for in a humourless character with not much charm of humanity to recommend him.
Billy Howle is also dreadfully miscast as the evil Prince of Wales who does plenty of shouting and unreasonably hangs, stabs and tortures as many rebels as he can find, even imprisoning Elizabeth in cage dangling over the sea. But Howle is a sensitive actor and this is not his thing at all. With virtually no menace, he is a sulky child rather than a genuinely malevolent presence.
Stephen Dillane is wonderful if criminally underused as King Edward, a dark and potentially fascinating character losing out on screen-time to his son. Florence Pugh is equally ill-served by a generic role as Bruce’s wife and despite an early flash of personality becomes the damsel in distress all too soon. Pugh imbues the character with as much spirit as she can, but you never quite believe the dour Robert would be worth all this bother. But you can play spot the Scottish actor with the rest of the cast who give it their all.
The cinematography in this Netflix production is lovely and Barry Ackroyd captures the beautiful but unforgiving landscape that Robert uses to his advantage while the battle scenes, in particular, are both colourful and bleak, particularly a well-staged attack at night in which Ackroyd emphasises the fire colours of orange and red, along with the smoke and shadow that proved decisive.
Outlaw King trundles along decently and as a predictable story of good and evil it does what it does well enough. Whether you agree with Bruce’s tactics to abandon chivalry and use the same heartless guerrilla tactics as the enemy is by-the-by, there is still enough going on to keep you reasonably entertained. And it won’t hurt the cause of Scottish independence either.
Release Date: 9 November