'Robert the Bruce': Film Review

Screen Media Films
An unnecessary footnote.
4/24/2020

Angus Macfadyen reprises the role he first played 25 years ago in Mel Gibson's 'Braveheart' in this historical drama, which he also co-scripted.

To say that Robert the Bruce suffers from poor timing would be an understatement. Not only does this film about the medieval Scottish king arrive a very long 25 years after Braveheart — of which it is a sort of unofficial spinoff — but it has the misfortune of following the recent, superior Netflix film Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine as the same character. It would be easy to understand why Angus Macfadyen, reprising the role he played in Mel Gibson's film and here serving as producer and co-screenwriting, must be feeling a bit frustrated.  

The pic represents a dream project for Macfadyen, who has been laboring to get it made for more than a decade. Unfortunately, he hasn't done himself any favors with this effort directed by Richard Gray that suffers mightily from its limited budget and narrative scope. The film depicts its titular character at a particularly low point in his life, and his listlessness proves infectious.

Set in 1306 (10 years after the events in Braveheart, making it seem that Robert, played by the 56-year-old Macfadyen, is not aging particularly well), the story begins with Robert having crowned himself king of Scotland but having little to show for it. His army is in tatters, and while the common people still largely support him, the powerful clans do not. These include one led by his powerful rival John Comyn (Jared Harris, unfortunately receiving far too brief screen time), whom Robert slays in an early action-packed scene that, alas, doesn't prove a harbinger of excitement to come.

Shortly after the king of England has issued a bounty for his head, Robert is wounded in a fight and finds shelter in the modest shack of a widowed peasant, Morag (Anna Hutchison), that she shares with her young son, Scot (Gabriel Bateman), and her late brother's two orphaned children. (The film actually begins with a scene in which Morag tells a bedtime story to her children about Robert the Bruce's exploits, so you can't say that there hasn't been proper foreshadowing.)

The result is that Robert spends much of the movie's running time morosely lying on his back, sullenly pondering his fate and being largely uncommunicative. It doesn't make for the most dynamic cinema, and such subplots as Morag's brother-in-law desperately wanting to capture Robert both for revenge (his brother died fighting for the cause) and the reward money fail to sustain interest. Indeed, the story moves so sluggishly and uncompellingly that the film seems much, much longer than it is, and you start to curse Robert for not making a speedier recovery.  

There's a big sword battle at the film's climax, but by then it's too little, too late. It doesn't help that the pic was shot in Montana, which resembles Scotland only if you do a lot of squinting and suspending of disbelief. (It's just as well the movie isn't premiering on the big screen, which wouldn't have done it any favors.) Or that the largely non-Scottish cast speaks with the sort of barely convincing accents that seem inspired by a Rosetta Stone course. Or that the story includes such turgid mystical elements as Morag's consultations with a local witch (Melora Walters) who looks like she should be operating out of a Greenwich Village storefront.

It's easy to understand Macfayden's desire to reprise one of his most important screen roles, and he does well enough with this more introspective, world-weary take on the character. Despite this, however, Robert the Bruce doesn't represent a notable addition to the Braveheart legacy.

Available on Amazon, AppleTV and VOD
Production: Yellow Brick Films
Distributor: Screen Media Films
Cast: Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Jared Harris, Patrick Fugit, Zach McGowan, Emma Kenney, Talitha Bateman, Gabriel Bateman, Kevin McNally, Brandon Lessard, Diarmaid Murtaugh, Daniel Portman, Melora Walters
Director: Richard Gray
Screenwriters: Eric Belgau, Angus Macfadyen
Producers: Richard Gray, Anna Hutcison, Angus Macfadyen, Kim Barnard, Andrew Curry, Nick Farnell, Cameron Nugent
Executive producers: Carter Boehm, Sharon Cox, Mike Gillespie
Director of photography: John Garrett
Production designers: Zach Depolo, April Hopkins
Editor: Hayley Miro Browne
Composer: Mel Elias
Costume designer: Vicki Anne Hales
Casting: Amanda Lenker Doyle, Chrissy Fiorilli-Ellington

124 minutes