This review begins with the obvious, the one aspect film critics will miss if ignorant of reality in Scotland, or own a mind set against Scotland’s political ambitions. Angus Macfadyen’s pursuit of this project, well over a decade from inception to creation and release, is a monumental achievement, all things considered.
Herculean covers a multitude of hurdles, bypassing Scotland’s cottage film activity, no Scottish based international film distributors, next to no history of film investment from the Scottish financial sector, and a popular film about the same famous warlord already released backed by Netflix millions. It would be mean-spirited of me not to begin a review with unreserved praise of this accomplishment, the cinematic expression of a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history realised on the big screen.
Nor can the film be compared to David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King (2019). They are chalk and cheese, or more apt, mead and maize. Mackenzie concerned himself more or less with England the omnipotent enemy, its aristocracy, their assumed entitlements and Edward’s military incursions. Macfadyen and co-writer Eric Belgau concentrate on the isolated domestic vicissitudes of Bruce’s self-inflicted wilderness years, between his abandonment of the struggle against English invasion and his renewed energy and new battle tactics. The film’s suppositions are largely conjecture and symbolic.
Be advised: cinema goers expecting big battle scenes, viscera hitting the air, and horses galloping or impaled on wooden spikes in slow-motion, the pornography of violence, will be disappointed. This is the Bruce from the perspective of, and on the side of, common folk. In that regard, the film defies categorisation.
What Macfadyen has done is to embrace the great oral tradition of Scottish-Celtic story telling. This is Bruce as handed down by word of mouth, in poetry and in story, family to family, generation to generation, not the Bruce as told by tough men of war. This is Bruce the failed general, Bruce the Doubter, Bruce the man riven with guilt over his failures and his perceived vanity. He is crowned King of Scotland, but everything he has touched has turned to lead, except his fine claymore.
It is taking a considerable risk to portray one of Scotland’s greatest heroes as a man of intellectual confusion, uncertain of almost everything including his own compatriots’ loyalties, he all too human. He is frozen by indecision. The first hour is heavy with gloom and despondency. “I truly believed God had chosen me to be King. And then we lost. God didn’t choose me – I did.”
The film begins with a pre-title confrontation, the well known incident when Bruce faced his rival for the crown, Sir John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, (Jared Harris) in Greyfriars Kirk, Dumfries. Where Outlaw King gave us a few terse words and then the dirk under the chin up into the brain, Macfadyen provides a real verbal jousting match of two men intent on wiping out the other before the duplicitous Comyn reaches for his hidden sword. This gives an indication we are about to see a film of well-rounded characters and lots of dialogue. Lots of dialogue we get, but also some exposition that could be removed without loss of understanding. I’ve more to say of that later.
In some ways it reminds me of black and white Japanese films where characters are given plenty of space to establish their persona, often with repetition of emotions, a compliment to the Bruce’s stylistic presentation. This is best illustrated by comparing Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and John Sturge’s rip-off The Magnificent Seven. As in Bruce, the former gives even the lowliest Japanese character great dignity, the latter does not. The Hollywood lot are all smart-arse misfits.
Playing the dark, introspective period of Bruce’s life, Macfadyen has Bruce little to say until midway in the story while all around him plot, squabble, keep each other’s spirits up, argue over Scotland’s destiny and wonder if Bruce is dead or alive.
The film reaches for the poetic in words and images often providing both, occasionally employing a surfeit. Historical films reflect the times in which they’re set, and are usually allegorical. Robert the Bruce is all of that; it captivates when it draws parallels with contemporary Scotland, stumbles when too heavy-handed with the poetic.
The central domestic sequences dominated by the strikingly handsome widow Morag (Anna Hutchison) and her noisy brood I found protracted by about fifteen minutes or so; some paring down would help increase the pace and keep the jeopardy Bruce is in to the fore. Moreover, when the film reaches a television transmission it will need editing to fit into a two-hour slot.
Angus Macfadyen, reprising his Braveheart role as Robert the Bruce, looks exactly right, carrying due gravitas, no matinee idol casting, more a battle scarred general still able to wield a heavy sword one arm tied behind his back. Here he is a lot older, grizzled and weary than when he first portrayed the future Scottish king. Bruce is a hunted man, not by the English who offer fifty gold pieces for his head, but his own clan enemies, the ones who feel ruled by a neighbour state is the best of all possible worlds. You watch and sigh, nothing has changed but the manner of territorial acquisition and assassination.
This is a Scotland tired of battle, ready to succumb to England’s might. Even within Morag’s family there’s dispute and discord. Her ten year old son Scot (Gabriel Bateman) is unconvinced Bruce is a man to follow. He lost his own father in battle and wants no more sacrifices. Families, villages and clans are as now divided. Morag lives with Scot, her niece Iver (Talitha Eliana Bateman) and nephew Carney (Brandon Lessard). Their clan is aligned with the English and her brother-in-law Brandubh (Zach McGowan) swears allegiance to Bruce but has other ideas that soon release his natural brutality.
Cinematographer John Garrett has wonderful scenery to create his sweeping vistas, a treat for the eye. Low-key lighting, especially in the croft dwellings, remind you of Clint Eastwood’s best westerns where the light comes from a candle in a lantern. There is mystery in shade and darkness. The whole film is beautiful without being self-consciously picturesque. Domestic mid-range and close-up scenes shot in Montana are never intrusive juxtaposed with panoramic shots of the Scottish Highlands. They remind us we live in a country rich in history and natural resources. Those images are perfectly embraced by the music score of Mel Elias, all ominous drumbeat and discordant keys.
To my shame I know little of the Australian director Richard Gray, other than his 2003 short “Yellow Brick Dreams” which did the film festival circuit picking up awards as it went. I wish he’d insisted on some cuts, there is loss of narrative focus in places, hence my three-and-half stars, but other than that he skirts cliché and the kailyard. And yes, a few non-Scots err on the wrong inflection when speaking, at least, to my practised ear
The story is woven as if a tapestry, full of texture, nuance, warp and weft, motivation and ambition, until we see the whole image coalesce, Robert the Bruce renewed, determined one more time to cut the threads of English rule. He has found a single profound defining reason to be King of Scotland, but it is the people who provide the inspiration … and a spider the symbolism.
For me, the most prophetic line is, “Ten thousand wives and ten thousand mothers need to know their men didnae die fer nothin”. That reverberates to this day.
We have a version of Bruce internalised by its star actor and externalised by the rest of the cast, an intriguing mixture that is worth seeing. I suspect students of film will enjoy dissecting it and its more action-orientated brother for some time to come. In that, they will learn, as I did, Bruce never owned a castle. He lived and governed among his people.
- Star rating: Three and a half stars
- Cast: Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Gabriel Bateman, Zach McGowan
- Director: Richard Gray
- Writer: Angus Macfadyen, Eric Belgau
- Cinematographer: John Garrett
- Composer: Mel Elias
- Duration: 2 hours 4 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA