Filmmaker David Mackenzie’s strapping Netflix epic Outlaw King starts with prologue notes surrounding the glowing heat of a single candle in close-up. The flickering warmth is inviting and a tone of liberating light coming out of darkness is set to parallel the recreated history that will follow. But how much heat can one candle emit? Try as it may, no matter what measures of warm blood and sweaty brawn is infused into Outlaw King, it is very difficult to find or create sizzle out of something balmy.
For this film, that one candle is Chris Pine. The Star Trek franchise A-lister reteams with his Hell or High Water director to expand the story of the early 14th century Scottish king Robert the Bruce, previously played quite inaccurately by Angus Macfayden 23 years ago in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart. Many sources will tell you Robert the Bruce was the true holder of the “Braveheart” nickname through his people’s struggles for sovereignty from England. Pine brings dramatized but faithful stoicism to the national hero.
Playing quite appropriately as a spiritual sequel to Gibson’s film, the off-screen warrior William Wallace has been apprehended and executed not long after Robert and many of his fellow nobles have pledged renewed allegiance to King Edward I (stage and screen star Stephan Dillane) in a tenuous effort to reorganize Scottish rule. The death of popular rebel reignites the conflict and dissolves internal and external allegiances among the Scottish leaders. Killing one of his rivals in a dispute, the crowned Robert is branded with this movie’s title as clans are torn whether to chase freedom with their monarch or avoid English wrath.
LESSON #1: THE BINDINGS OF PLEDGING FEALTY — Those who need the vocabulary reminder can read that “fealty” refers to the “the fidelity of a vassal or feudal tenant to his lord.” Think of it as a more intense degree of loyalty. This is an era where which king and country you hold dear can determine your flourishing fate or detrimental demise. The choice of fealty is the backbone for this history’s wars on display.
The Bruce must lead his rabble on the run with his young daughter and second wife Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth). Bolstering Robert’s ranks is James Douglas, played by the second-billed Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a more feral fellow lord and outcast that pledges his allegiance to Robert. King Edward charges his son and future heir Prince Edward (On Chesil Beach’s Billy Howle) and Aymer de Valence (Sam Spruell of Snow White and the Huntsman) to stomp out the Robert’s fledgling resistance. The two embark on a merciless path of pursuit across the muddy and brisk Highland countryside. Howle’s unnerving viciousness throws chivalry out the window for both sides. The chainmail goes on and swords are drawn.
LESSON #2: A LEADER’S BALANCE OF COURAGE AND WISDOM — Early in the film, Dillane’s arrogant king volleys a fantastic backhanded compliment in the direction of Pine’s leader saying “I’m glad you had the courage to stand up to me and the wisdom to stand down.” His inflating respect finished by deflating dominance showcases this lesson’s struggle within the burden of leadership. Decisions to push wrestle with decisions to pause. Either route could be labeled as bold and audacious or brilliant and astute. Both Robert the Bruce and director David Mackenzie share this uncertainty in Outlaw King.
The brilliance is the look of the movie. Tsoft Scottish climate saturates the strikingly wide vistas and brutal battlegrounds. The artistic superstar of this film is Oscar-nominated cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, a prized regular collaborator of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker and Detroit) and Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips and United 93). The Englishman’s camera range is incredibly impressive. Ackroyd employs drone and aerial photography for high angles to cover ground quickly above flying arrows and flailing bodies. He balances that scope with an intimate Steadicam floating tight to encircle the characters in intimate scenes and encounters with expertly choreographed long takes. Ackroyd’s machinations bring worthy attention to rich production design of Oscar winner Donald Graham Burt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and exquisitely rustic costumes of Jane Petrie (Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace). Every visual detail is gorgeously presented for any sized screen.
Outlaw King stands as a tall jump in class and a big risk for David Mackenzie, who has made a respected career keeping things small and sharp in his nine previous films. Expanding to an epic size has dulled and diluted some of what makes his work pierce us with fascination. Pace and build-up are arduous challenges. Even with this savage and stimulating subject matter and a newly reduced final cut that shaved off twenty unfocused minutes, Outlaw King lumbers more than it lunges.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#739)