Turn of the screw

Film Review: Outlaw King

20 November 18 words: Ashley Carter

David Mackenzie's historical epic tells the story of Robert the Bruce and his campaign to rid Scotland of English rule... 

Director: David Mackenzie

Starring: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stephen Dillane

Running time: 121 mins

As something of a spiritual successor to Braveheart, David Mackenzie's Outlaw King portrays the historical period briefly covered in the epilogue of Mel Gibson's 1995 epic, namely Robert the Bruce's campaign of independence against the occupying English army in 14th-century Scotland. A comparison between the two films was an inevitably from the moment the project was announced, but Mackenzie wisely avoids including William Wallace as a character - a decision made in the editing suite, when a scene between Wallace and Bruce was removed. Instead, his name and rebellious deeds are whispered across banquet tables, hanging in the atmosphere like a spectre, a humiliating reminder for the Scottish lords who have since succumbed to swearing an oath of fealty to Edward I (Stephen Dillane). Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) is one such lord, reluctantly persuaded to promise loyalty to the English King by his father (James Cosmo), an old friend of Edward's, in a stunning nine-minute continuous opening shot. But as Bruce's father lays dying, he expresses his regret and, with his final breath, warns Bruce that he has made a mistake in trusting the English. This regret soon turns to rage when William Wallace is captured and executed, a fact Bruce discovers when his dismembered arm is sent to Berwick and displayed as a warning against any further rebellion. After first solidifying his claim to the throne, Bruce has himself declared King of Scotland, and begins a brutal, David-Versus-Goliath guerrilla campaign to rid his country of the forces of the English King, and his maniacal son Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle).  

The only two negative things to say about Outlaw King can also be interpreted as compliments, namely that I wasn't fortunate enough to see it on a cinema screen, and that, at a running time of just over two hours, it wasn't a ten-part miniseries. As far as modern historical epics go, David Mackenzie's film is a spectacular achievement of bold storytelling, helped immensely by a cast packed with enormous performances. Pine's Bruce is stoic and likeable, with the expected speeches of bombastic nationalism instead replaced by an inner-ferocity that's counter-balanced with a wise, humorous and caring streak. Dillane continues to prove why he is one of the most interesting and watchable performers currently working, adroitly bringing an element of empathy to his world-weary, ageing tyrant king, Edward I. James Cosmo and Tony Curran are as excellent as ever, whilst Aaron Taylor-Johnson brings an unhinged manic ferocity as James Douglas (the man with the greatest nickname in all of   late antiquity: The Black Douglas), an ally of Bruce's who is fighting to reclaim his ancestral home. Much credit is also due to Billy Howle who, as Edward, Prince of Wales, strikes a captivating balance between vulnerability and unhinged rage as he desperately strives for his father's approval after being given command of the force to suppress Bruce's campaign.  

An efficient, eminently watchable film of action and muscle, with barely a frame feeling wasted or unnecessary

Much has been written about Pine's accent, which to my ear seemed faultless, and the historical accuracy of the film. Whilst it admittedly strayed away from the recorded events somewhat, reviewers seem to need a constant reminder that makers of historical epics are not documentarians. Directors are often unfairly burdened with these Reithian values to educate the audience, whereas their real purpose is to entertain, something Mackenzie achieves with great success. He's created an efficient, eminently watchable film of action and muscle, with barely a frame feeling wasted or unnecessary. 

Outlaw King concludes with the The Battle of Loudon Hill, a brutal, ferocious climax that showcases Mackenzie's skill as an action director. It's further demonstration of just how much of a game-changer Game of Thrones' Battle of the Bastards was in terms of choreographing and shooting large scale battle scenes, setting a high standard that is at least matched, if not bettered here. There's a barbaric realism to the carnage, no grand heroic deeds or displays of Achillean skill, but rather a palpable sense of desperation and exhaustion to the slaughter that renders the climactic scene far more effective.  

In the six days that Outlaw King has been available to view on Netflix, I've watched it three times, and would gladly sit through another viewing now. With the original cut rumoured to be closer to four hours in running time, I just hope that we get the opportunity to see an extended version one day. 

Did you know? James Cosmo, who plays the father of Robert the Bruce, is the only actor to appear in both Outlaw King and Braveheart.

Outlaw King is available on Netflix now

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