Fourteenth century Scotland is a long way from the recession-struck West Texas where Chris Pine and director David Mackenzie last met for Hell or High Water; and that film’s spare narrative has little in common with the boggy historical saga that is Outlaw King, where Pine plays the man who would lead Scotland’s first war of independence from the English. One of very few things the films have in common is that both are about young men who decide to become criminals to keep greedy powers off their familial lands. (Another is that it’s the loose-cannon character, not the hero, who keeps us watching.)
Though likely to be meaningful to Scots, for whom Robert the Bruce is a national hero, audiences Stateside may often find the warrior’s journey (and it’s just the beginning — the war lasted an additional 20 years after this film ends) something of a grind, nodding off occasionally as they watch the two-and-a-half-hour film from their sofas. Attention is easier to focus for this kind of period piece in a movie theater, but, this being a Netflix film, TIFF attendees may be the only ones who’ll ever see it that way.
We meet Pine’s Robert with his tail between his legs, as he and many other Scottish lords, who’d been part of William Wallace’s rebellion, are forced to pledge fealty to King Edward I. It’s clearly a bitter deal to accept, and the surrender is short-lived, but Robert does get one thing out of it: Edward decrees that Robert, a widower with a young daughter, will marry his goddaughter Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh). Robert’s gain is viewers’ as well, since the slow-building admiration between the newlywed strangers provides welcome relief from the perfunctory political scene-setting of the film’s first act.
The one bit of dramatic promise here is the establishment of friction between Robert and the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle). The two had been friendly years ago, as the script has it, but now the prince isn’t friends with much of anybody. He’s a loud man who hides his insecurity with rage, and Howle rips into the part. (Viewers who wish, midway through, that we had one solid scene to explain the prince’s anger will be rewarded when he finally gets to kneel at Edward I’s deathbed.)
It’s difficult enough for the film’s five credited screenwriters to sum up years of conflict and place Robert at the head of a very small army of Scots willing to go back to war; summarizing it here is a waste of time. Suffice to say that he commits a controversial murder, some priests arrange for him to be crowned king of the Scots, and when many rival lords refuse to join his cause, he gets an important ally in the person of James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Douglas’ late father was a sworn enemy of the English king, and the grudge he carries is (for reasons we don’t quite understand) much more potent than his comrades’ patriotism. At the film’s climactic battle, when Robert exhorts his soldiers, “Today we are beasts!,” Douglas is the only one who truly seems to get it.
Pine is fully committed to Robert’s mission, but the film has a hard time making him a compelling character, even with a wife and daughter on hand to make him relatable. And it takes forever for his military campaign to get rolling. Robert takes massive losses early on, and at one point it seems he’ll just keep walking into ambushes. The movie has lively moments, like one sequence pairing Robert’s nighttime coronation with a baffling, violent ritual in which the Prince of Wales embraces his bloodlust. But the military storyline lags, and even at its best — the Battle of Loudoun Hill, where Robert uses knowledge of the muddy terrain to even the odds — nobody’s going to mistake this for Braveheart, the celebrated portrait of Robert’s predecessor William Wallace.
[Editor’s note: This review is of the version of the film screened at the Toronto Film Festival. The new and final cut of the film has a shorter run time of 121 minutes.]
Production company: Sigma Films
Cast: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Howle, Florence Pugh, Tony Curran, Stephen Dillane, Sam Spruell
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Bathsheba Doran, David Harrower, James MacInnes, David Mackenzie
Producers: Gillian Berrie, Richard Brown, Steve Golin
Executive producer: Stan Wlodkowski
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Donald Graham Burt
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Editor: Jake Roberts
Casting directors: Kahleen Crawford, Francine Maisler
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)