Director: David Mackenzie
Writers: Bathsheba Doran (screenplay by) (as Bash Doran), David Mackenzie (screenplay by)
Stars: Chris Pine, Stephen Dillane, Rebecca Robin
Has there been a more wronged man in the history of film than King Robert the Bruce? If there is then I’m oblivious to their identity. In fairness, I only know of one film featuring the legendary Scottish figure, that being the equal parts loved and maligned, historically inaccurate, Braveheart from 1995. There was undoubtedly some rousing moments within the Mel Gibson blockbuster that technically could serve as a prequel to Outlaw King, but it heavily romanticised the period and unforgivingly butchered the name of the Bruce.
He wasn’t a calculating, traitorous, coward that flip flopped muddy, medieval battlefields in English or Scottish regalia depending on his mood. No, in actual fact, it was Robert that was termed ‘Braveheart’ and it’s this particular inaccuracy that David McKenzie sets out to correct.
The romanticism that was abundant in Braveheart has been ditched for the blunt, brutal, viscerally violent reality of 14th century Scotland. There’s not a handkerchief in sight, nor any fictitious French ladies sent north in English convoys. The Outlaw King is, in the main, a faithful recreation of the events that led to the controversial coronation of Robert and the ensuing eight year war of independence with England that followed. Is there some artistic license used, including Edward II appearing for a sword duel in a battle he was never present at? Yes, but a degree of karma is required for non-history buffs, looking for the villain of the piece to get his just desserts.
The film picks up with the lords of Scotland each pledging fealty to Edward I (Stephen Dillane), in return for titles and land. Aside from the opening 5-10 minutes, which features a cool continuous shot, the film chops around furiously, racing to the point where Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) is married to the future king, Robert the Bruce Snr (James Cosmo) dies, William Wallace is betrayed and a quartered body part is sent northward for an enraged Bruce jnr to witness. When the story resettles permanently upon Robert, his primary purpose of rounding up support for a war against the English is brought firmly into focus.
The story itself primarily flips perspectives between Robert, his band of followers and Edward II (Billy Howle). The former goes through an emotional wringer of a journey that takes him up and down the length of the country. His first brush with the Earl of Pembroke’s (Sam Spruell), English forces ending with a cowardly, night time ambush that sends him northward to Islay to regroup. The infamous murder of John Comyn III that set him on the path to be King of Scots also left him with many an enemy in his homeland with the enraged clans looking for every opportunity to stab him in the back, a fact shown almost immediately afterwards.
Edward II meanwhile has his eyes on emulating his tyrannical father, who was titled the hammer of Scots and historically was a thorn in the side of the nation. Sadly, Stephen Dillane settles for a backseat role in the film, with old age and dysentery hamstringing his character, effectively handing the role of antagonist over to his son. The trouble is, the younger Edward was incompetent, a point that was perfectly portrayed by Mckenzie. He flung his weight around, was a bit of a bastard, but gave me Theon Greyjoy vibes and despite his misplaced bravado, he never truly convinced as a fitting antagonist or felt like a real threat.
I’ve seen this film described as an overly long, drag by some critics, presumably from the States or outside Scotland. I didn’t think that was the case at all. It seems pretty clear to me that they were expecting something different, perhaps a bigger, more bombastic epic, with huge, sprawling battles, akin to that seen in Braveheart. It was never going to be that kind of film. It focused on the Bruce during the formative years of the post-Wallace independence wars, when he was still learning to adapt into the infamous guerrilla warfare that would come to personify his battle against the infinitely stronger forces from south of the border.
I actually enjoyed the pacing, the side ventures off to Islay with Angus Og MacDonald (Tony Curran), the re-taking of Kildrummy Castle, the relationship and romance between Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) and Robert, the extended redemption arc of James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and even the growing impatience of Edward at his sons increasingly forlorn attempts at stemming the uprising.
They married in organically with the main arc, showing the trouble they had in gaining support from the clans, the stark difference between the warring ‘monarchies’ and it allowed me to connect on different levels with the more prominent side players. Douglas in particular was a firm favourite. He was charismatic, funny, absolutely stone mad and he had a highly memorable and violent return to Douglas Castle. Intriguingly, the latter is amongst just a handful of sporadic fights that occur before the climatic Loudoun Hill battle. I recall four in total, off the top of my head, but they’re handled well and they pack a punch.
Chris Pine worried me going in because the Scottish accent is very difficult to do correctly, especially in a cast full to the brim with actual Scots. I’m pleased to say that his accent was actually decent however. He didn’t go full Scotty, it was understated and it didn’t take me out the film. His acting ability is undeniable and he combined beautifully with McKenzie before in Hell or High Water, one of my favourite films from 2016 and he’s very good again here. There was times when he didn’t even have to open his mouth to convey the sorrow or rage within and thankfully he passed on the blue face paint.
The other standouts for me were Tony Curran, Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Florence Pugh. They all brought some different to the table, injecting necessary energy and personality into the story. Angus was the level headed ying to Douglas’ loose cannon yang, whilst Elizabeth had by far the greatest transformation from the young, mellow and innocent figure, into the bold and courageous lady that was standing up to Edward II when an easy get out was dangled in front of her.
The dialogue was great too, another feature of McKenzie’s films that I’ve enjoyed. It was organic, punchy, funny in the right spots and stirring in others. From Edward’s clever put downs, Angus’ wife’s funny berating to James Douglas screaming “what’s my fucking name?” to Robert giving a short and sweet pre-climatic battle speech. Speaking of which, the battle was very enjoyable, if not quite historically accurate. I particularly enjoyed the ingenuity of using the land against the cavalry heavy, English invaders. It flowed well and was a fitting conclusion to the film.
I can’t round this review up without giving mention to the stunning cinematography. Scotland is a stunning country, with epic scenery. Barry Ackroyd is immensely talented and he captured the beautiful blue seas off the coast of Islay, the rolling valleys of the highlands and the violence of medieval warfare perfectly. The set design was immaculate too, though sadly, the score rather unmemorable.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Outlaw King. I’ve been fascinated with the figures of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace since I was young and it’s truly fantastic to see David McKenzie exploring the history of a cinematically, misrepresented, Scottish hero. The fact it was filmed exclusively in Scotland, primarily around Stirling is an added bonus and I can only hope it inspires a new generation to become as equally interested in the period. It has some little inaccuracies, but is well directed by a man clearly passionate about the subject, it features a large and excellent cast across the board, bolstered by three or four standout performers.