David MacKenzie’s Outlaw King does some good in telling Robert the Bruce’s story but is unfortunately surrounded by some poor attempts to make this film feel more authentic.
The whole scope of the film feels wrong to begin with. If you are going to tell the story of one man then you need to give that man a decent amount of context before embarking on this journey, instead we are plonked down in the middle of the surrender and told to get on with it. Some films can thrive on this type of mystery but a historically accurate driven film? It is not going to work. The early moments, surrounding the surrender that King Edward (Stephen Dillane) demands of the Scots, feels incredibly rushed when it should have been a far more emotional and degrading moment. The history between Robert (Chris Pine) and the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) was also glossed over amongst other things and more should have been made of the terms of the surrender, the reasons behind it and the effects going forward, but you know, we can just have a sword fight between two drunkards instead.
Set around the 1300’s this is a horrendously hard time for people to live in. Not only under occupation from the English lords but just living was tough and that didn’t translate into the appearance of almost everyone on set. Clothing and cleanliness appeared to be just fine as everyone had next to new clothes to wear and visages were scrubbed clean, hair looking fantastic. Now, I’m not a historical expert but that seems a little far fetched. Everything seemed to be a little bit too sanitised and unbelievable, again if you are trying to make a historical biopic, then surely you could try to make them masses look authentic as well.
The despotic Edward only managed to show a small amount of harshness and that was mainly towards his son. There didn’t feel to be any real ire or villainy in Stephen Dillane’s performance, which is a real shame as he has a fantastic turn of malice in him. The Prince of Wales didn’t feel believable or serious enough for his tyrant role. Petulant and put-upon, yes. Tyrannical Prince about to reclaim his father’s honour and pride? Nowhere near.
Chris Pine mostly did a good job in the role and the Scottish accent as Robert the Bruce. Although I had issue with his wide eyed, little boy lost look through most of the film. Maybe he is supposed to look out of his depth right up until the end? I don’t know but it was slightly off-putting to me and I couldn’t fully get behind his actions or beliefs. Aaron Taylor Johnson as The Black Douglas outshines Pine’s Bruce whenever he is on screen, showing all the passion and drive and desire that you would expect from someone trying to enlist and unite a nation of fighters behind him to oust the English threat. Yes, he may not be the most eloquent but, by god, he puts everything into it. A powerhouse of a performance by Taylor-Johnson lifted the entire film for me. And speaking of this context of reclaiming their sovereign nation (sound familiar?), I was left strangely emotionless watching events unfold. I felt no connection to The Bruce or his family, although Florence Pugh as Elizabeth de Burgh is really good for what she gets to do, and that leads to Outlaw King feeling flat and uninspiring.
All this being said, the final battle, or the battle that finally happens, is awash with action and carnage and chaos, as I’m assuming that battles from those days were. Violent and bloody with plenty of sword swinging and bludgeoning is great but it only goes so far. Unfortunately it does not make up for the rest of Outlaw King, as these pulse-raising events seemed too few and far between. And then we have the horses. What on Earth does David MacKenzie have against horses? I can’t say that it would normally affect me but I’m pretty sure that more horses were killed, and in more brutal ways, that anything else in this film! Barry Akroyd’s camerawork isn’t anything spectacular to note, there are numerous glorious Scottish vistas to gawp over but the rest didn’t add anything exciting or elicit any emotion to the scenes playing out.
Overall Outlaw King felt a little rushed and with too narrow a scope to really give a sense of the events of the time and their significance. With more exposition about the past and more of a sense of what all this is leading to would have given the whole film a more important and significant feel. As it is, there is nothing behind the eyes of Outlaw King, just like Chris Pine’s Bruce