The story of Robert the Bruce recently had a creditable outing on Netflix in Outlaw King, with Chris Pine taking on the titular role, and now – after first portraying the rebel leader in Braveheart (1995) – Angus MacFadyen finally brings us his sequel to that box office smash. But while the two earlier films were epic in scale, Robert the Bruce, co-written by MacFadyen and directed by Richard Grey, tells a story on a much more intimate scale.
After fighting (and repeatedly losing) for many years, and with a harsh winter descending on his ragged army, Robert is disillusioned enough to dismess his men and head off into the wilds to consider his options. The fact that there is a sizable reward on his head motivates several of his former comrades to go after him, bent on claiming the money. Seriously wounded in a skirmish, Robert staggers into a remote cave, where he spots the infamous spider at work – and from there, he wanders close to the home of Morag (Anna Hutchison) and her extended family.
Despite the obvious dangers of helping an outlaw, Morag takes him in and heals his wounds. She is a widow, whose husband died fighting for the Scottish cause. His brother, Brandubh (Zack McGowen), however, is the local sheriff. He has his eyes both on Morag and the reward money…
Set during a convincingly frozen winter, the film flirts with the concept of legend, unfolding some of the events as a story told by Morag to her young son, Scot (Gabriel Bateman). The narrative doesn’t always hang convincingly together: Brandubh manages to look like the most gullible man who ever lived, and it would have been useful to see some of the depravations of the ruling English, just to remind us why the Scottish chose to fight their oppressors so defiantly. But there are definite compensations here, in a series of appealing performances and the sometimes ravishing location photography, much of it shot in Montana, but with key sequences familiar from our recent trip to the Isle of Skye.
And while the lack of pitched battles may have been forced by a tight budget, it’s actually refreshing to watch, for once, a historial movie that doesn’t descend into one endless brawl.