2018, R, 117 min. Directed by David Mackenzie. Starring Chris Pine, Stephen Dillane, Rebecca Robin, Billy Howle, Sam Spruell, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Callan Mulvey.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 9, 2018
There's a famous, possibly apocryphal story about a screening of Mel Gibson's trash historical fantasy Braveheart, that there was a screening in Stirling, site of the real William Wallace's most significant victory. During a Q&A afterwards, locals were aggrieved that the film had removed the strategically vital bridge from the battle of Stirling Bridge. The producers replied that they found it got in the way of the action. "Ay," some old cove at the back announced, "the English found that, too."
Outlaw King feels like a pointed rebuttal to Gibson's garbage history, picking up in the closing days of William Wallace's rebellion against the English crown (the only time he's seen is one severed arm, roped to a cross, as a warning to all traitors). Instead, director Mackenzie focuses on Robert the Bruce (MacKenzie's Hell or High Water star Pine, grizzled, scarred, and achieving a more than passable lowland Scottish accent). Like all the Scottish nobles, in 1304 he's forced on bended knee to swear loyalty to Edward I of England (Dillane, capturing a tired and brutal man on an ancient throne), who has declared that there is no suitable single heir to the Scottish throne, and that he's keeping the crown. That doesn't sit so well with the Bruce, who butchers his main rival John III Comyn (Mulvey), and gives the other nobles and the Scottish church an ultimatum: Forgive his sins, follow him as king, and get the English off their backs.
Of course, that's not an easy path, and the script by MacKenzie, James MacInnes, and Bash Doran (a veteran of getting down-and-dirty from Boardwalk Empire) shows Bruce's hurtling fall and slow rise, culminating in the pivotal Battle of Loudoun Hill, where he used terrain-based tactics (of the sort erased from Braveheart) to wipe out a massive English army under the control of the raving and craven Edward, Prince of Wales (Howle).
The script boils down to the essentials of the story: That a king was a man prepared to do terrible things with a crown on his head and the right people at his back. Bruce is a good man doing those terrible things, and he is well-explored – as is Florence Pugh as Elizabeth de Burgh, his wife of political necessity who finally became his actual love.
But not everyone is as easily distinguished. Most of the nobles are interchangeable (a possible side effect of the 20-minute trimming since its TIFF premiere), except for Taylor-Johnson carving up the glens as professional mad bastard James Douglas. There are also moments to make historians wince, most especially a third-act chronology that egregiously conflates details of Loudoun Hill with the Battle of Bannockburn seven years later. But Outlaw King gets far more right than it ever gets wrong. Fourteenth century Scotland wasn't kilts and Pictish face-paint: It was a Late Middle Ages nation, with elaborate regal clothing at court, elaborate cravings and furniture, a distinct culture – and mud and blood and violence. Call it post-Game of Thrones conflict (with quite possibly a few nods to Justin Kurzel's unjustly overlooked 2015 adaptation of Macbeth). The battles aren't grand and formal, but brutal and messy. An opening friendly duel between Robert and the young prince Edward (exquisitely captured in one sweeping opening shot) lays out that these fights are men hammering at each other with massive, sharp slabs of metal for a cause that sometimes gets lost in the grime.