David Mackenzie is a great Scottish director who hasn’t really made a film set in Scotland in years. In 2003, he emerged with Young Adam (starring Ewan McGregor), a moody yarn set in 1950s Glasgow, but since then has only occasionally revisited his native land. His most recent films—the English prison drama Starred Up and the Texas bank-robber thriller Hell or High Water—were some of his best. But with Outlaw King, Mackenzie returns to his homeland to tackle one of its biggest legends: Scotland’s medieval battle for independence. It’s a tale that’s been covered before, most notably by Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning hit Braveheart.
Outlaw King has a star of its own—Chris Pine, in the role of King Robert the Bruce. Robert was portrayed in Braveheart as a calculating but gutless politician who ultimately abandons the rebellious cause of William Wallace (Gibson). Outlaw King chronicles what happened afterward, as Robert takes up the mantle of Scottish independence in the early 14th century and begins a guerrilla campaign against the English King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). The film is intent on dashing the romantic myths of Gibson’s movie and many other medieval dramas, laying bare the grimy truth of period warfare.
What was that truth? A lot of men charging at one another in fields, whacking folks off their horses with swords and halberds, and mud—lots and lots of mud. Robert was a noted tactician, and Mackenzie wants to dramatize that, though the king’s idea of tactics mostly involves baiting English soldiers to charge into slimy pits littered with spikes. As innovative as Robert was, he still lived during the early 1300s, and Outlaw King is caked with the grubby details of that time. The film may be too much of a bloody slog for some; others will be on board for every gruesome minute, as I was.
In Braveheart, Scottish independence was a matter of honor, and the initial Wallace campaign was more direct. Outlaw King picks up not long after Wallace has been defeated and sees Robert navigating the tricky politics of swearing loyalty to King Edward without losing the respect of his countrymen. Also in the mix are John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), a rival for Scottish leadership; Robert’s father (James Cosmo), preaching peace; and Prince Edward (Billy Howle), the king’s son, who has a chip on his shoulder about his own military prowess.
Initially, Robert tries to maintain the truce by marrying an Englishwoman, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), but the situation quickly disintegrates and war resumes, with Robert constantly retreating and scurrying around the country to gather soldiers and avoid being crushed for good. Pine plays the self-proclaimed King of Scots as a gruff, brooding strategist, less given to sentimental speeches and more concerned with outflanking his enemies. His accent is solid, but better still is his confidence; Pine never grandstands for the audience to appear more regal than necessary. His stoicism is balanced out by a far hammier ensemble, including a particularly unhinged Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the Scottish warrior James Douglas.
As a filmmaker, Mackenzie has always strived for verisimilitude no matter what the genre. A movie as pulpy as Hell or High Water worked because its actors (including Pine) felt like real people despite their heightened cops-and-robbers antics. Outlaw King is aiming for the same and largely succeeds, even as Taylor-Johnson and Howle mug for the camera. Pine and Pugh’s characters, in particular, form a crucial bond early in the film that makes their eventual separation during the campaign feel more high stakes.
Mackenzie knows Robert is a politician who builds alliances carefully, but he also knows those alliances have to matter to viewers. Outlaw King does a strong job mixing the historical exposition with something a little more recognizably human. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in a longer form and felt bogged down (especially in its first act) with all the background information it was trying to deliver. Mackenzie has since trimmed the movie extensively, cutting some 20 minutes, and its final form on Netflix is much cleaner.
Outlaw King might not replace Braveheart in the public eye, given how actively it resists the inspirational trope of combat automatically conferring glory. In Mackenzie’s film, surviving any battle requires a mix of luck and daring, and even legendary figures like Robert (still lionized in Scotland to this day) struggle with the costs that come with freedom fighting. But Outlaw King is a necessary antidote, one that might catch audiences off guard at first before burrowing into the mind through sheer, mucky tenacity.