9th November 2018 (Netflix Premiere)
A true David v Goliath story of how the great 14th Century Scottish 'Outlaw King' Robert The Bruce used cunning and bravery to defeat and repel the much larger and better equipped occupying English army.
Chris Pine, Stephen Dillane, Rebecca Robin, Florence Pugh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Netflix’s Outlaw King tells the true story of Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s other rebel hero, in the early days of his resistance against the depraved English regime. It can’t be an easy gig following William Wallace (let’s try not to mention Br*veheart too much), but as a historical figure and liberator of the Scottish it’s Robert who deserves the real acclaim. Do we finally have a film that does him justice?
In 1305 William Wallace is on the run and the Scots are broken, with the majority of nobles reluctantly swearing fealty to their conqueror, King Edward I of England “Hammer of the Scots”. Among them is Robert Bruce (Chris Pine), a lord’s son. In a political gesture, Robert is married to Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh), the daughter of an English lord. He is quickly smitten, and Elizabeth becomes a surrogate mother to his own young daughter. Just as it seems he will live out his days in peace and comfort, news spreads that Wallace has been captured, horrifically tortured and killed, sending the people of Scotland into an uproar.
When his father passes, Robert realises that he must stake his claim on the Kingdom of Scotland, unite his people, and free them from the English. However, with the Scottish rebel force in tatters, and facing one of the mightiest armies in the medieval world, the odds are certainly against him.
Robert the Bruce’s story is beloved in Scotland, and it’s one of his countrymen that brings it to the screen. Outlaw King’s director and co-screenwriter David Mackenzie is an exciting talent, giving us prison drama Starred Up in 2013 and more recently the Oscar-nominated western Hell or High Water in 2016.
It’s exciting to see a Scot take the helm on this project and it’s clear that Mackenzie is taking it very seriously. When Outlaw King first premiered earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival it was quite different to the film we see today. In fact, Mackenzie was so dissatisfied with the product he disappeared back into the editing booth to make sure it was perfect for the world debut on Netflix, cutting over 20 minutes of footage.
The finished product begins with an eight-minute sweeping take, masterfully introducing us to the main players and their relationships, but also the world itself. Mackenzie’s spectacle of the old world is magnificent. We’re taken to lavish weddings, heaving feasts, muddy war camps and introduced to strange customs – all fully realised by an impeccably detailed set and costume design, and very often diegetic period music. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips) gives us spectacular vistas of Scotland’s untamed landscape, as well as the towns and castle nestled amongst it. We’re thrown wide-eyed into an authentic vision of 14th Century Britain and Mackenzie’s frequent long takes are the perfect opportunity to drink it all in.
Chris Pine (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Wonder Woman) takes the lead and, although it would’ve been nice to see the part of Scottish king played by a native, he does a convincing job. Despite being written as a fairly rudimentary hero-type, he has enough brooding charisma and natural authority to make it work.
The supporting cast do well: Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones, Darkest Hour) is assertive as King Edward, if not as despicable as you’d expect him to be, Billy Howle (Dunkirk) is excellent as his petulant, insecure son, the Prince of Wales, and the standout Scottish lord has to be Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick Ass 2, Godzilla) who is captivating as the wild Lord Douglas. The best, however, is Florence Pugh (Malevolent, Lady Macbeth) as Elizabeth Burgh, whose fantastic performance brings a layer to the plot that would’ve been sorely missed without.
One thing that must be said of Outlaw King, it does not shy away from on-screen savagery. We see slivers of this in the opening 45 minutes, but it really gets going when King Edward sends his army to crush Robert’s rebellion, rampaging through Scotland. You see bloody executions, you see disembowelment, and briefly in the background of a scene, which had me rewinding in disbelief, an English soldier can be seen ripping a baby from the arms of its mother and throwing it against a wall. You may well find these shocking moments gratuitous, and it certainly rides the line at times, but when you’re representing such a cruel time in British history, what can really be considered off limits?
As you’d expect, the grand battles match this brutality and more. The blows feel weighted and destructive, spraying blood from the unlucky victim, but most importantly, each battle and skirmish feels distinct. Whether it’s the choreography, the setting, or those involved, every battle feels fresh and interesting and, in a historical epic, that’s crucial.
Now, we need to talk about the film’s ending so *SPOILERS* ahead.
We are finally led to the ultimate battle against the English, do-or-die, and it’s great; a little long and unfocused towards the end, but just as exciting and impactful as its predecessors. The battle is won, we are treated to a minute-long post-script, and suddenly it’s all over. We’re yanked abruptly from Mackenzie’s fantastic world, and themes like family and Scottish freedom are given hasty, unsatisfying conclusions, leaving the military victory to take the limelight: a rather shallow end to such a promising story.
A brief message for those after Braveheart 2: you’re going to be disappointed. Not because of any of Outlaw King’s aforementioned shortcomings, but because it’s a fundamentally different film. Both might have battles in boggy fields and blood aplenty, but where Braveheart is hugely romanticised and enjoyably pantomime, Outlaw King is straight-faced and authentic. Whatever floats your boat.
Nevertheless, Mackenzie and Co’s effort is extremely watchable (especially at just two hours), and, while it might fall short of the biopic Robert the Bruce deserves, it’s a great adaptation of a fascinating time in British history.
Outlaw King is now streaming on Netflix.
A convincing and enthralling medieval world
Savagely thrilling battles
A shallow, unfulfilling ending.