Freedom, etc. It’s been a whopping 23 years since Mel Gibson dominated screens with his, ahem, colourful depiction of the life of William Wallace. Braveheart was rightfully pilloried by some for its loose adhesion to the historical narrative and basic period details, but it couldn’t be denied that it was an enthralling drama that managed to easily embed itself in the popular consciousness.
Now, under director David MacKenzie, we’re back to the same period, only it’s not William Wallace that is the focus. Instead it’s the period between his death and the closing of that First War of Scottish Independence, and the focus is Robert the Bruce, played by Angus Macfadyen in 1995, but now with Captain Kirk (ha, geddit!?) stepping into the role. Bruce is an enormous figure in Scottish history whose story has never really gotten the big-screen treatment it deserves: with Netflix on hand to provide the audience, is Outlaw King a step-up from Gibson’s period behemoth, or does it languish in its shadow?
After crushing all resistance, Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), and his less impressive son of the same name (Billy Howle) reigns supreme over Scotland, taking the submission of numerous nobles, including Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine). In the aftermath Robert deals with a new marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) and a rivalry with the Comyn clan, but as Edward’s overlordship becomes increasingly unpopular among the people, the opportunity for re-igniting the rebellion and claiming the Scottish throne can no longer be ignored.
Here’s the thing about Outlaw King: it clearly wants to differentiate itself from Braveheart by taking the opposite tack when it comes to the thorny issue of historical accuracy. Outlaw King is thus, with some exceptions, a very accurate movie, in terms of events and characters depicted, clothing, fighting, etc. But in so doing, it loses something very important, and proves that extremes in approach frequently will bring the same level of criticism.
Yes, this is the kind of film I would be comfortable showing to students of a Scottish history class. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good movie. The oft-derided term of “artistic license” does need to employed on occasion, and one feels that Outlaw King is one of those occasions. MacKenzie wants you to realise how accurate it is, what with him opening things up with “This film is based on historical events”, but to what end? Is historical accuracy something to follow like a mantra, or is it an impediment to this kind of exercise?
Outlaw King simply lacks something. Call it an emotional core maybe. The relationship between Robert and Elizabeth should provide that, and for the first half it does. Sensing his wife’s discomfort with their arranged marriage, Robert refuses to even try to consummate the union, creating a decent romantic and even sexual tension; later Elizabeth chafes at Robert’s well-intentioned efforts to keep her out of affairs of state, and all the while she creates a relationship with Robert’s daughter from his previous marriage. There is something watchable in the tale of this tentative, fledging romance, intrinsically tied as it is to the nascent cause of Scottish independence.
But then the two spend a large proportion of the film’s running time very far apart from each other, stuck in seperate movies, with Elizabeth having a largely subordinate adventure. Robert’s role is thus turned into simply a focal point for a succession of well choregraphed but emotionally empty battle-scenes, with the enemy having more interesting figures to look at. The critical moments of his life, like that early submission, or the death of his father (James Cosmo, who also starred in Braveheart) or his reaction to the execution of an unfeatured William Wallace, it all comes and goes so quickly, and you never really get the chance to understand the kind of man that Robert is.
MacKenzie apparently had some editing issues, with Outlaw King having near 20 minutes cut from its initial release in September film festivals after negative audience reaction regards its length. Yet, I cannot help but feel that it needed that time: for more scenes featuring Robert and Elizabeth, for more time to properly flesh out the Scottish nobles surrounding Robert, and more time, perhaps, to give the film a somewhat more satisfying conclusion. There always seems to be another enemy just around the corner, coming along to ruin any of the films quiet moments. Those going in may be surprised to learn that MacKenzie chooses to forgo Bannockburn as his finale, choosing instead the earlier, and less vital, Battle of Loudoun Hill as his finale, and it is then that he chooses to meddle with the historical record a tad, rather successfully. But this endpoint, before the central story of the film – the quest for Scottish independence – is actually resolved, leaves you feeling a bit empty at the conclusion.
And there does not appear to be any kind of deeper point to be made. Outlaw King can’t really claim to be a film that is pro-Scottish nationalism, if its closing crawl, that namedrops Bruce’s descendants as those who unified the English and Scottish crowns, is anything to go by. The Scots under Bruce are a ragtag bunch who stand up to a vicious enemy, but MacKenzie isn’t interested in depicting some kind of Star Wars-esque alliance: the Scots are frequently as bad as the English. Without any kind of deeper meaning to proceedings, Outlaw King loses more it can’t really afford to.
Chris Pine, reuniting with the director after the excellent Hell Or High Water of 2016, does what he can here. He obviously wants to bring a certain kind of regal bearing to Bruce, but he simply isn’t that kind of actor. He excels in the action roles, as Kirk or Steve Trevor, but not as the man who would be King. Robert is too quiet, too meek, too uninteresting in his own right, with the performance only coming to life in moments of emotional distress, which are rare enough (one does appreciate Pine’s willingness to match his female co-star’s nude scenes however).
Much of the supporting cast are little more than hangers-on who shout battle cries when the need arises and little else. Better is Pugh as Elizabeth who brings something important to the film, a connection through her awkward taking up of the role of Robert’s new wife, and later as a pawn of English politics. Her thespian background is obvious, and I feel she has a very positive career ahead of her if she chooses to continue pursuing the big screen over the stage. We must also give some kind words to Dillane as an aging Edward I, a less cartoonishly evil character here than Patrick McGoohan’s version of “Longshanks” and Howle as his son, a Crown Prince whose incompetence fuels a reckless and ultimately self-defeating ambition.
From a visual standpoint, Outlaw King tries some innovative things. The film opens with a five to ten minute tracking shot that runs the gambit between meek supplications to Edward I, sword-fights between primary characters and demonstrations of the heights of medieval military technology. It’s intimate and different from the typical cinematography of the historical drama genre, and the remainder of the film has a certain kinetic quality to it in its occasional aversion to static shots. But unfortunately Outlaw King does not take that ball and run with it, instead falling back on effective but uninspiring visual direction. Battle scenes are shot to emphasise blood and mud, romance scenes have soft lighting and torches, expansive vistas from the Scottish countryside are frequently showcased in marvellous fashion. The definition may have improved sine 1995, but the basic ideas really haven’t.
Those battle scenes are a bit overdone at times, and the film might have been better if it choose to discard at least one, with their repetitive nature rapidly becoming obvious. The second and third act are simply littered with swinging swords, flaming arrows, shrieking horses and spurting blood, enough to satisfy even the most deadened aficionado of Game of Thrones, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually any good. Instead, they are essentially just bog-standard, and nothing any seasoned veteran of this genre has not seen many times before.
Given the seemingly decent budget, high-profile nature of the lead and Netflix’s apparent commitment to its marketing, Outlaw King cannot but be considered a disappointment. Maybe the job was beyond the director’s talent, or maybe he should have simply had enough confidence to keep his original, longer, cut of the film intact. As it is, Outlaw King lacks a really engaging plot, with a cast too full of “happy to be here” types and a look that is simply too pedestrian if it truly wants to stand out. Historical accuracy isn’t enough, since sometimes history simply isn’t as good a story as you need. You may actually want to stick with Braveheart. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).