This exciting film is like a Bruegel canvas, so many interesting things happening at once for the eye to take in you hardly know what to concentrate upon. One unexpected but gratifying outcome of seeing this film and one easily predicable spring to mind as I write this review. I was proud to see so many of my graduates from Scotland’s Youth Theatre in major roles, the theatre I founded and was artistic director. One of the earliest, Tam Dean Burns, I personally auditioned. He was a tall, gangling, eccentric figure with a marvellous face. I asked him why he wanted to join a theatre company. His answer carried the ring of certainty “I’m an accountant. I dinnae want tae do it anymore”.
The second observation is the number of English critics who give the film a few stars and gloss over the history because they know so little of Scotland, and the few who have rubbished the work as worthy, plodding, fit “only for nationalists”. Let the bigots eat dirt. This is a gloriously energetic and intelligent epic, gripping from start to finish. And it has the wonderful, spirit raising dividend of panoramic images of the Highlands of Scotland.
When the film was premiered in the Toronto Film Festival it was 20 minutes longer – three hours – the first section of a movie being where you lay out the backstory of the main characters. The current release has severed – the correct word for a film oozing in blood and gore – a lot of exposition, verbal and visual, in some cases leaving a vacuum of character detail on interesting combatants preeminent in the history of a nation’s defiance. Also, a few minor roles are left high and dry, at least to the practiced eye.
David Mackenzie is emerging as a great Scottish director, co-founder of the Glasgow based Sigma Films. Outlaw King cements his reputation beyond his superb Texas cops and robbers Hell or High Water. The last film he made set in Scotland was in 2003, Young Adam, a sombre adaptation of the novel set in 1950s Glasgow.
Tackling Robert the Bruce’s disasters and triumphs, one of Scotland’s most revered heroes, is courageous, all the more so since Mackenzie follows the Oscar winning Braveheart with its similar theme of Scotland’s bloody struggles to retain its nationhood against the belligerence of a mighty neighbour state.
The film begins with a statement, “Based on the life of Robert the Bruce’, a gentle reminder to the philistine and the happy Union Jack waving Anglophile that creative licence is the very stuff of drama.
Outlaw King begins where Braveheart left off, with an uncertain Bruce (Chris Pine) pledging allegiance to Edward I (Stephen Dillane) knowing his father (James Cosmo) would not trust the English Crown as far as he could kick it into the Clyde. Then again, Edward has promised to give back seized lands to Scotland’s nobility in return for homage. Equated with modern Scotland we see token powers given back in the infamous ‘Vow’ so long as the union is respected. Think on it, why would you be thankful if a thief demanded a portion of your monthly salary in return for handing back property they’d stolen? Was co-writer Mackenzie conscious of these parallels? Only he can say.
Bruce is needled into a sword bash with the spoiled Prince of Wales, (Billy Howle) a well educated dolt, the precursor to every Etonian toff ever. What follows is a scene of medieval ladism, the equivalent of who can pee highest up a tent pole. Bruce is mature beyond his years and doesn’t let himself be ensnared by junior rivalry.
The self-doubting prince has more troubles than an intimidating Scot. He sports the worst pudding bowl haircut in the whole of merry England, a bad copy, I fear, of Lawrence Olivier’s in the 1944 propaganda war version of Henry V.
The effete prince is no fighting match for a swarthy posh Scot, one of two potential contenders for Scotland’s Crown, a man who eats thistles for salads. After leaving the prince humiliated in the mud, Bruce strides back into Edward’s tent to be given the hand in marriage of Edward’s goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh, (Florence Pugh) the daughter of one of the most powerful Irish nobles around, the Earl of Ulster.
The betrothal is the seal on a permanent truce, Scotland with England. Throughout all this Bruce remains decidedly phlegmatic, a man of few words. This is a leader of men who doesn’t need to say very much to make his feelings known.
From there it’s back outside the Royal tent once more. Pulling back, Mackenzie reveals a gigantic catapult – Edward’s latest war toy – and has him cut its rope, swinging a massive flaming projectile straight at us, we recoil, before it cuts through the air in the opposite direction and explodes on the ramparts of a distant castle. Bruce is unimpressed by Edward’s bravura.
Before continuing this critique I must add that this entire opening sequence is filmed in a single take, the conceit of ambitious directors since Orson Welles first managed the feat of perfect timing in his classic 1958 noir, Touch of Evil. The technique is easier to achieve these day – hand-held cameras as light as a bag of crisps. All that’s needed are actors who won’t muff their lines and be on their mark at the precise moment required of them.
With his second wife, Elizabeth, now looking after the child of his dead first wife, Bruce begins an uneventful life as a jobbing earl with estates, but two things turn his and Scotland’s future upside down.
On a day in town he comes upon an angry rioting mob braying for blood at the capture and killing of William Wallace, sentenced hung drawn and quartered by Edward though he carried a letter of Royal protection when arrested on his way to negotiations in London. Bruce is shocked to see the arm and shoulder of Wallace strung up on the town’s Mercat Cross, a warning to the enemies of England’s power.
The crass and criminal act echoes David Cameron’s overweening bumptiousness when in September 2014 he strode balls high to a Downing Street microphone and announced the parliament of the United Kingdom was dropping pretense of being a four nations assembly. It was England’s Parliament. Scotland lost the vote for independence; see how its weakness is punished.
Bruce’s second error was to stab his opponent for the Scottish Crown, Sir John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, (Callan Mulvey) in Greyfriars Kirk, Dumfries. He had met him to seek support for a campaign of insurrection but was refused. History is unsure exactly what happened in the kirk. It is said the long-time enemies had a fight, Bruce wounded ‘Red’ Comyn in the shoulder in a fit of pique. On the way out his friend, Roger de Kirkpatrick said ‘You doubt. Ise mac siccar’ – I’ll make sure – and entered to finish the job. Bruce as the only killer is quite acceptable – it tells us he’s capable of homicidal violence.
Bruce assembles clan support to help rid Scotland of English garrisons and plundered land but is caught unawares while camping with his men late at night. After the defeat at the Battle of Methven on 19 June 1306, Bruce, now crowned King of Scotland with the blessing of the Church, sends Elizabeth, his nine year-old daughter Marjorie (Josie O’Brien) by his first marriage, and sisters Mary and Christina to Kildrummy Castle, under the protection of his brother Niall.
The English lay siege to the castle containing the royal party. (The siege succeeded when the English bribed a blacksmith with “all the gold he could carry” to set fire to the corn store.) The victors hang, draw and quarter Niall Bruce, along with all the men from the castle. However, the royal women under the escort of the Earl of Atholl have fled.
They are taken from the sanctuary of St. Duthac at Tain by the Earl of Ross, a supporter of the Comyns, and dispatched to King Edward. He imprisons Bruce’s sister Mary and Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, in wooden cages erected on the walls of Roxburgh and Berwick castles respectively, and then sends Bruce’s daughter Marjorie to the nunnery at Watton.
Elizabeth is held under poor conditions of house arrest in England for eight years, released after the battle of Bannockburn is won. The Earl of Atholl was hanged and his head displayed on London Bridge. English hospitality has a way of alienating tourists.
From hereon war between Scotland and England is assured and Bruce runs from one hiding place to another as English chase him down and Scottish clans betray his presence. These sequences give Scotland’s cinemagoers satisfying confirmation that they live in a country of unparalleled topographical grandeur blessed with unique light. Scene after scene makes you proud to live in a land of plenty though scarred by invasions and treachery.
Verdant braes and crag and scree lie under dramatic skies and boats on crystal lochs are captured in the sensitive lens of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and his Second Unit. Credit is due to the crew who moved actors, extras and equipment from one mountainous location to the next. Almost every castle that can be reached is used to its full extend, including Blackness Castle, home to many a film shoot. Mackenzie had the luxury of a big budget that allowed him to places normally out of geographical bounds.
Chris Pine gives us a Bruce who is made of Scots pine, hard, tough, and a great place to shelter when the storm is raging. His large forehead is perfect to get bespattered with mud and blood. His Bruce is a thinker. There are key moment we know he has come to a decision merely by a slight shift in his gaze. Bruce is a tactician who learned his trade from the hit and run tactics of the guerrilla, and step by step brought them together in arguably Scotland’s greatest victory over England’s power, at Bannockburn. Pine carries just enough authority and a decent Scots accent – not localised in any way – to grow into the role of King of Scots. Is there a Scottish actor who could have taken on the role? Most certainly, but not sufficiently popular internationally to secure a Netflix budget.
There are too many supporting cast to list, but all, everyone, gives us fully rounded characterization, and all seem able to ride a horse and wield a broadsword or swing a halberd. Stephen Dillane is plausible as a workaday world weary Edward I, free of the eccentricities of Patrick McGoohan’s version in Braveheart.
In fact, there’s not a weak link in the chain, not even a glaiket extra staring at the camera as it passes him, or wearing a watch. By all accounts the shoot was a happy affair and it shows in the cohesion of ensemble acting.
I can add that it was good to see James Cosmo move from his role in Braveheart to Bruce’s father in Outlaw King. Not once did I feel he was selling me a bank account.
Had she been given more scenes Pine would have been matched in acting chops by Florence Pugh as Elizabeth his wife. Pugh (why no poetic surname?) has here only one scene in which she asserts her personality over male misogyny. After that she is the archetypical harassed wife. That said, very little is known of Elizabeth. She was imprisoned for much of the time Bruce was baiting English regiments, so Mackenzie can’t be blamed for the brief chances we get to see this fine actress grace the screen.
The final battle is not as we expect, not Bannockburn, but the last in Bruce’s hit and run campaign, a modest battle at Loudoun Hill in Ayrshire in 1307. Violent and bloodcurdling, as it must have been, I didn’t think a movie battle could surpass the opening sequence in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but Loudoun goes above and beyond.
It was a battle reminiscent of Stirling Bridge, boggy ground opened up and spiked to filter English horsemen into a narrow line easy to pick off. You hold your breathe every minute as you witness the carnage. Bruce is no Butcher Cumberland. Wounded English are allowed to go home.
I did miss Bannockburn, a twinge of regret we could not see how Bruce pulled together everything he had learned to show his generalship in full glory against the most powerful army of his time. His greatest weapon was his intimate knowledge of the Scottish countryside, which he used to his advantage. Perhaps that is for another film, the planning of it, the battle itself, and the aftermath.
To be appreciated, hats are doffed for the stunt men, and the horses in particular. Horses pack almost every scene in the film, a major organisation in itself. Cinema is always the better off for prancing, galloping magnificent steeds.
Jane Petrie deserves an Oscar for costume design. I found myself inspecting boots for rubber soles and things as small as the stitching on a battle dress for any sign of a sewing machine. Extras are suitably grimy as if they’d lived in a Scottish village all their life.
Weaknesses? A candle lit soft porn scene between Bruce and Elizabeth supposedly to tell us their marriage is consummated; a few too many characters too swiftly introduced and then given too little to say, sacrificed for pace of story telling; a truly cringe-worthy final scene on a sandy beach straight out of Hollywood’s Ten Worst Hackneyed Images; and sadly Jim Sutherland’s music. Mackenzie gives us a thoroughly modern costume drama, Sutherland gives us an old fashioned score. It’s fine, just unmemorable.
Patrons in the packed cinema I attended stood to their feet and cheered. A three star movie? Those reviewers are brain dead. Five stars.
- Star Rating: Five stars
- Cast: Chris Pine, Stephen Dillane, Florence Pugh, and lots of horses
- Director: David Mackenzie
- Writer: Bathsheba Doran, David Mackenzie
- Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
- Composer: Jim Sutherland
- Duration: 2 hours 8 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?