Robert The Bruce swears fielty to King Edward I after the Battle of Stirling. But after the death of William Wallace, the will to fight the English returns and Robert fights to unite the clans and defeat Edward and his cowardly son.
Producer Gillian Berrie stated that she wanted this production to address a perceived injustice that the film Braveheart placed too much emphasis on William Wallace as a historical figure, maligning the role of Robert the Bruce in winning Scottish independence. She also mentioned wanting to create a more nuanced view of the conflict.
In the former, the film certainly succeeds as Robert the Bruce is painted as every bit the sword-slinging revolutionary as Gibson’s Wallace. However, this cannot be regarded as a more even-handed a portrayal of the conflict. The English are murderous cads who break all the rules of engagement and terrorize the noble Scottish peasants. Meanwhile, the Scottish troops are warrior poets who defend the weak and are generous as well as handsome. I’m not suggesting this is an inaccurate portrayal of British-Scottish relations (it does have a ring of truth to it) but a history lesson this most certainly is not. It’s historical fantasy on a grand scale.
This reductionism does make for an exciting if unchallenging adventure. The film becomes an epic chase sequence as the English pursue the dwindling Scottish army across the country. The exhausting pursuit and sudden violence of the exchanges between the armies ensures a relentless tension. The acts of brutality from the enemy creates a bold sense of peril.
Chris Pine’s accent is better than Gibson’s but he is a fairly uncharismatic lead. He is a gentle presence and a fairly interesting figure but he struggles when it comes to inspiring the troops. Pine has charm, but not authority. Florence Pugh gives the more powerful performance as Elizabeth de Burch, who has power and strength beyond the limitations of her role. One can’t help but hope that her Lady Macbeth instincts return and she discovers the agency and ferocity to free herself.
The aesthetic of the film recalls the spate of historical epics released between Braveheart in 1995 and Alexander in 2006. Natural tones, visceral but realistic violence and a competition between directors to see who could fill their frames with the biggest armies. The failure of Alexander and the success of 300 in 2007 changed the look and feel of historical epics. Outlaw King is a very enjoyable throwback to the Ridley Scott dominated era.
Outlaw King is no more nuanced or insightful than Braveheart but it matches it for entertainment. It’s a silly and fun fantasy slugfest with epic battles and stern-faced exchanges set against glorious Scottish landscapes.