Director David McKenzie takes on a story from his homeland and delivers on the setting and violence, but falters somewhat on the heart of it all.
Following the execution of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) sets out to rally enough troops to reclaim his homeland in battle with the much larger English armada.
McKenzie keeps the story streamlined and focused on the Bruce’s quest to unite Scotland, with everything appearing grandiose and important, but also feeling strangely empty. We are introduced to Robert the Bruce begrudgingly swearing fealty to Edward I, and then swiftly onto a spiteful swordfight rife with exposition. If you aren’t familiar with the legend the film chronicles, it seems as though we are dropped right in the middle of it with no emotional attachment to Robert or anyone, the film seemingly relying on well-shot style to convey it all.
The writing is surprisingly lacklustre (surprising in the sense that it took five writers to provide this little substance), with little to no nuance in the script’s plot or characters. Boo hoo, Edward II wants to impress his dad. A solid enough character motivation, but you simply don’t feel it here. He’s just a whiny brat with a broadsword.
While there isn’t much historical inaccuracy to the point of Braveheart (The infamous battle of Stirling Bridge, sans bridge from that film comes to mind) Outlaw King does take some liberties that will no doubt infuriate the scholars among the audience. For one, Robert, by the grace of God, King of Scots wouldn’t be referred to as “majesty”, but “your grace”. It’s the little things that matter when you depict real events.
Not to say that Outlaw King is bad, no sir. Most of the characters are all excellently played and engaging enough to carry the film and build the real emotion needed for this brilliant David-and-Goliath story. And the action is brilliantly executed, all the marsh, violence and gore one could ask for in a medieval epic. And indeed the film is surprisingly humorous at times, only furthering the charming appeal it instils in the viewer. Angus MacDonald’s (Tony Curran) return to his beloved is a highlight.
The much bemoaned casting of Pine as the Bruce proves to not be entirely fulfilled upon. There are a wealth of actors who could have portrayed the Bruce arguably better, but Pine provides a good effort, his Scottish accent understated and holding its own amongst his supporting cast, and his commitment to the role fully evident (the man gets his Johnson out, for Christ’s sake). But despite his efforts, his performance is simply serviceable. Not great, not terrible, but bland. Robert the Bruce was at times a very flawed man, and an actor who may have been able to more effectively portray a man crumbling under his own ambition would have likely done the deed better.
Other baffling decisions come in expunging aspects of the Bruce’s story which beg to be cinematically recreated. The great story of Robert and the Spider is mentioned in passing, right after Pine’s aforementioned dong-display, and the lack of the battle of Bannockburn simply feels like missed opportunities. Granted the Battle of Bannockburn happened after the Battle of Loudon Hill, it remains something of an injustice not to have it featured in a film about the Bruce’s life.
On its own merit, regardless of historical gobbledegook, Outlaw King is by no means a guilty pleasure as the Mel Gibson epic that preceded it (which itself has a Robert the Bruce-centred sequel in the mix as of February 2018), but it is simply an underwhelming battle epic that entertains, rouses emotion, does some battle, and then finishes. The film was cut down after its premier, which is ironic, as it simply feels there should be more of it.
In these days of a different kind of war for Scottish independence, and the uncertain nature of the current British political climate, it seems the right time for a film recounting one of Scotland’s most revered figures to rear its head around this time. We just wish it had reared it a little bit better.