Netflix’s release of Outlaw King will mark the second major period-piece of 2018 dealing with Scotland (Mary Queen of Scots being the other). Detailing the rise of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), the film encompasses the soon-to-be King’s journey from the surrendered to the defender. During these travails, director David Mackenzie‘s film most closely resembles Braveheart, another Scottish film, and Gladiator.
Outlaw King opens with Robert pledging fealty to English King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). If you’re trying to imagine Braveheart‘s timeline, this would be just before Wallace’s defeat. We don’t see Robert turn tail and run because, well, he’s supposed to be the hero of this film and heroes aren’t betraying backstabbers. Outlaw King would have been a more daring film had it begun with Robert’s betrayal. Still, we’re told that pledging fealty doesn’t sit well with the would be king because he’s not a king. In fact, he’s been bumped down to glorified Tax Collector with his “pal” John Comyn (the other royal with a claim to the Scottish throne). That’s the price for siding with Wallace and coming back to the English king with no bargaining power.
To keep the peace between Comyn and Robert, they’re made to swear oath and friendship before God. Robert, to sweeten the pot, is also given the god-daughter of Edward I: Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh). Elizabeth is depicted as strong, loyal, outspoken, and morally resilient. The screenplay is keen to demonstrate the power and ability of women, even during a feudal period. Like the rest of the film, this isn’t given room to breathe due to a truncated timeline.
Robert’s biggest rival, other than Comyn, is Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle). Edward spends much of the film being emasculated by his father. Portrayed as an idiot, Edward craves to be the equal and better of his father. The portrayal of his character should bring reminders of Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, especially during the sword sequence. After pledging fealty, Robert and Edward have a “friendly” match. Much of their exposition is clumsily accomplished here. With each grunt and clang of the sword, and short-breathed dialogue, we’re given the characters’ past rivalry with one another. There’s also some jealousy between the two. As with Gladiator, though more subtly here, Edward I respects and prefers Robert to his son. ‘You had the courage to stand up, and the wisdom to stand down,’ Edward I reveals to Robert.
But no one came to Outlaw King for peace, we came for blood and guts. That wartime merriment comes when Robert’s father dies and Robert’s confronted with a quartered portion of Wallace’s body hung in a town square. The film then transitions into Robert’s hero’s journey, as Edward decides to raise the dragon. No, don’t get your hopes up. It’s not a real dragon, though my heart did skip a beat and I forgot basic history when they said it. Instead, it means the rules of chivalry are gone. Take no prisoners.
Outlaw King is at its best during these battle scenes. We want to see intestines strewn across the bloody floor. We’ve got it. There’s peasantry to kill, right? Let’s see it. The gore will be enough to quench your inner most animalistic appetite.
No, Robert. Outside of the gore, Outlaw King lacks a compelling story. Well, it has a story, it’s just not completely told. The minor characters are minor. James Douglass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has one thought on his mind, to reclaim his lost land. Past that carrot, he loses any depth. Angus (Tony Curran) is the right-hand man of Robert. However, he’s only that. They, like the rest of the film, are reduced to masculine testosterone. And while Elizabeth begins strong, by the time she’s captured there’s not much screen time left for her.
Outlaw King‘s disadvantage stems from it covering a rise that took 21 years in total (8 years if counting the major skirmishes). It’s a lot of history to cover in 137 minutes. There’s a reason Braveheart is 182 minutes, as it also covers 8 years. The film would be better off it weren’t a film. This project screams mini-series. The story and characters would be given more depth and room to breathe, instead of truncating serious historical events into subtitles. Also, we’d be able to marvel at Chris Pine’s performance. Instead, we’re given a tidy, but unsavory period piece that doesn’t quite reach the heights of its influences.