Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Running Time: 121 min
It’s just a fact that you can’t make a film about medieval Scotland fighting for independence without comparisons to Braveheart. It’s unavoidable. To its credit, Outlaw King tries very hard to distance itself from the 1996 Best Picture winner, but fails to create enough emotional investment to balance out long, violent fight scenes.
After the death of William Wallace, 14th-Century Scotsman Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) decides to carry on the task of liberating Scots from English rule. Dubbed and “outlaw” by the ruthless King Edward I and a "king" by his fellow Scots, Robert must somehow assemble the war-weary clans to join him against England.
Certainly, the film aims to strip away the Hollywood gloss of medieval Scotland that Braveheart created. Gone are the historically inaccurate kilts and the over-dramatic speeches. Outlaw King is intent on showing you every gory, gruesome detail of what it was like to fight during this time. The details of being drawn, hung, and quartered. The hardships of the battlefield. The fight scenes are plentiful and long. Production must have spent a fortune on trained horses falling over and fake blood. In true Scottish fashion, the skies are grey, the castles greyer and the actors all look like they’re waiting for the director to say “cut” so they can put on those giant floor-length poofy parkas.
The only way to pull off such intense battle scenes is to balance it with emotional heft, but the film never slows down enough to explore the dualities of our Scottish king. And Robert the Bruce is certainly a man of dualities. He goes to confession after murdering someone, but really only wants the political approval of the church. He wants revenge for acts committed against his family but knew by going to war with England that he was putting his family at risk. He wants Scotland to be free, even if the price is more dead Scots, weary from almost a decade of fighting. Instead of delving into those conflicting actions, we get very long fight scenes, interspersed with enough dialogue to get us to the next one. When it originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film was 20 minutes longer and certainly bloated. But the emotional kiddie pool we’re left with makes me wonder which 20 minutes were cut.
Pine gives it his all as Robert the Bruce, never playing him too over the top — you won’t find any rousing battle speeches here. The same cannot be said for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays the deranged Scottish fighter James Douglas. But the guy’s good at playing crazy, so it mostly works. Florence Pugh does what she can as Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, but her character is a very basic Loyal Wife, fiercely loyal to Robert despite marrying him at a young age and instantly loving his daughter from a previous marriage. And of course, she’s got a beautiful singing voice to boot!
In favoring battles over conversations, Outlaw King tries to top itself with more and more senseless violence but doesn’t convey it effectively without the emotional investment to match it. Points for historical accuracy, though?