True Scotsman and genre maestro David Mackenzie was always going to produce a more measured take on the historic Scottish fight for independence than Mel ‘Braveheart’ Gibson. It comes as no surprise then that Mackenzie’s tale of love and war is as stark as it is occasionally syrupy and much more politically dense than Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic.
The lukewarm response that met Mackenzie’s original cut of Outlaw King at Toronto’s September Film Festival has done the film wonders. Trimmed of twenty-three minutes excess since then, this is a focused and dramatically satisfying film, with enough bombastic choreography to neatly balance dryer stretches. The creative freedom and alleged $90m budget awarded to the film by Netflix pays dividends in allowing ambitious set pieces to impress and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd to best capture the breathtaking Scottish landscape. Not since Skyfall has the country been so well shot.
Chris Pine gives a restrained performance as Robert the Bruce – vocally limited to negate too much scrutiny of his accent – and is generally content to be an active piece in the film’s wider movements rather than dominate. More likely to linger in the memory is a typically commanding turn from Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh, here playing Elizabeth de Burgh, the Englishwoman bequeathed to Robert, after his own wife’s death, by Edward I (Stephen Dillane). The film opens just prior to their union in a startling long take that witnesses Robert swear allegiance to the English crown.
Of course, all but the least well read on the subject – who may find themselves lost in a mire of MacDougalls and Douglases – will know that such subservience must be short lived. A grisly cameo from William Wallace – ‘he wasn’t a man, he was an idea; a destructive and dangerous idea’ – proves to be the straw that breaks the Bruce’s back and it is not long before Robert reneges on his loyalties to be crowned King of Scotland. There are factual liberties here but they’re much more historically acceptable than those conjured by Gibson and Randall Wallace.
Outlaw King is no film for the squeamish and horse-lovers may find the equestricide on show here too much to bear. There is a vehemently grim moment in which one character is hung, drawn and quartered on camera, whilst the concluding battle is big, bold and brutal. Though much of the violence is served in the film by Billy Howle’s sadistic, slightly one-note, portrayal of the future Edward II, there is nuance in Mackenzie’s awareness that both sides did terrible deeds. The teeth here are twenty-first-century but they bite with fourteen-century attitude.
If there is a fault to the film it lies in its often choppy pacing. That cuts were made is a given but some of them are too jarring for their own good and truncate a succession of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them scenes. Further still, the film’s opening is so blisteringly effective that the scenes that follow can’t help but feel a touch lacking. So broad is the story being told by Outlaw King that ample exposition sits alongside unusual plot absences and bogs down the action in its own complex history. Mackenzie is at least admirable in striving for comprehension and does demonstrate a skilful eye for detail – just count the scares on Pine’s back.
Wisely avoiding an excess of overt patriotism, Mackenzie allows viewers to focus on the film as an atmospheric and visceral depiction of an epoch, rather than a call to arms. There’s plenty here to rouse audiences – ‘I know you all as men, but today we are beasts!’ – and yet it is the cruelty of warfare that weighs heavy on the credits rather than glorification. That and a lot of mud.