Outlaw King is the tale of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots circa 1306 as he rallies the common folk to his cause to fight the English. If that sounds a little familiar, you wouldn’t be wrong. The film is essentially a sequel to the 1995 acclaimed (but historically inaccurate) film Braveheart. Outlaw King made it’s debut at TIFF earlier this year to lukewarm reviews. Since then, Hell or High Water director David MacKenzie has been hard at work on making the film more appealing for the average consumer before it made its debut on the streaming service. Now that it’s here, how does it fare?
Chris Pine stars as Robert the Bruce. He’s of the Scottish nobility and has recently sworn fealty to King Edward I of England (otherwise known as Longshanks, played here by Game of Throne’s Stephen Dillane) in exchange for the return of the noble’s lands and an end to the war. William Wallace is still living in hiding after his defeat in battle but he still commands a lot of respect and admiration with the common folk. The peace is further finalized by Robert’s marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh, a member of the English nobility. But of course, the peace is short-lived. The English continue their practice of forcibly conscripting young Scottish men into the English army, which only angers the people. But things boil over when Wallace is captured and killed, with his body parts displayed as a warning per Edward’s command. As Robert the Bruce said at the end of Braveheart, it did not have the desired effect.
Now let’s get the obvious out of the way. Chris Pine is not Scottish. Usually, when Americans take on British accented roles, they suffer greatly and the Scottish accent may be the hardest to emulate. Thankfully, Pine largely pulls it off. It’s not as convincing when he’s giving speeches or yelling, but in conversation, his accent is quite believable. Robert is a desperate man who wants to right previous wrongs in his life. He wants to fight for his people but to do that he needs the support of the nobility and the clans. After his powerful nemesis promises to rat out Robert’s impending rebellion, Robert murders him in a church, an act that alienates many of his would-be supporters.
England is furious that Scotland has rejected the English Crown and established their own monarchy. In retaliation, Edward’s son, Edward Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) announce Robert an outlaw and declare that chivalry among knights is hereby removed. Meaning that knights no longer have to abide by their code of righteousness and such, the Dragon is raised and rape, murder and torture are deemed okay in order to get the job done. Usually, in historical pieces like this, the English are seen as cruel and evil and Outlaw King is no exception to this. You really grow to hate these guys.
Joining Chris Pine on the road to recruit soldiers is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the feral eyed James Douglas and Tony Curran as Angus Macdonald, who help Robert fight against not only the English but angry Scots. It’s not long before Robert’s numbers are low and demoralized. This is a war film and thus, there is violence. But it’s never shot as an action scene. The violence in this film is brutal and sometimes unsettling. Blood splatters into the air in red clouds and swords hack away at men like knives through butter. Many deaths are not telegraphed and a character will be in the middle of a fight only to be suddenly trampled to death or speared from someone off camera. One scene in particular, featuring a hanging, is downright stomach turning, so you’ve been warned.
Overall though, the film is quite good I found. If there’s one problem with the film is that it can suffer from some pacing issues. Sometimes events go by too quickly while other times they seem to drag on a little too long. I have to wonder what the extended cut of this film was like when it premiered at TIFF. I also have to wonder if this film would’ve been better served as a TV series or a mini-series event, as more time would’ve likely been beneficial. The film ends with enough closure to wrap things up but leaves enough historical moments go unanswered that a sequel could happen naturally. But an eight-episode season would’ve likely been the better way to go. Likewise, due to time constraints, we don’t really get enough time with Robert and Elizabeth, a character who was forced into marriage with the Scottish noble who ends up loving him and witnessing the horrors of the English army first hand from the other side of the conflict.
On the more positive side of things is how the film looks. Shot on location in Scotland, it’s impressive to see the majestic mountains in the back of the shots, cementing the film at the right place in the right time. The sets are amazing, with castles and armies looking real and not like CGI creations. An opening long shot is quite impressive, going from conversations to a duel, back to a conversation and to a catapult attack on a castle in the distance in one take. It may be the highlight of the film and it’s the opening scene. The film is a natural follow up to Braveheart and if you’re a fan of that film, The Last Kingdom or Vikings, I’d say this would be up your alley.