Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce

02/07/19

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.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Outlaw King

 

23/11/18

In a move that is happening with increasing regularity, Outlaw King has gone straight to Netflix. When this first started, I imagined it would only be an occasional thing, but now, it seems, the streaming company have their eyes on the Oscars. The inevitable result is that brilliant films like the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs have been afforded the same treatment; and Alfonso Cuaron’s upcoming release, the Oscar-tipped Roma, looks certain to follow an identical path. Oh sure, it will have a ‘limited theatrical release,’ but that may only amount to one week in a few cinemas in London in order to qualify for competition. Ultimately, it means that British cinema goers are going to miss out and this worries me. I love cinema and I want to see it supported not sidelined.

Ironically, this powerful action movie, based around the life of Robert the Bruce is yet another film that really deserves to be viewed on the big screen. There’s sumptuous location photography, filmed (in what is becoming the exception rather than the rule) in the places where the story actually happened. The time is clearly right for the subject. Consigned to a supporting role in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Robert the Bruce is an important figure in Scottish history, and the man chiefly responsible for securing its independence from England.

When we first meet Robert (Chris Pine), he is renewing his fealty to King Edward the First of England (Stephen Dillane), mostly at the insistence of his elderly father, Robert Senior (James Cosmo), who feels he’s seen enough bloodshed for one lifetime and fears the consequences of taking on his country’s occupiers. Robert reluctantly toes the line, paying his exorbitant taxes and even agreeing to marry Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh, building on her star making role in Lady Macbeth), a woman he has never even met before. But the capture and murder of Scottish rebel leader, William Wallace, brings about a change of heart in Robert and, against all contrary advice, he takes up his sword and sets about trying to unite Scotland against a common enemy. It’s no easy matter and he has plenty of defeats to overcome before he can make any progress. But as the saying goes, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’

David Mackenzie makes an assured job of all this, handling the more intimate scenes and the epic battles with equal aplomb. The growing relationship between Robert and Elizabeth is sensitively handled but the film is unflinching when it comes to the visceral – a scene where one character is hung, drawn and quartered is certainly not for the faint-hearted. A climactic cavalry charge is so brilliantly immersive, I find myself wincing at every hack of a claymore, every thrust of a lance. Again, this really needs the scale of a cinema screen to fully bring Barry Ackroyd’s superb cinematography to life – even the biggest of home screens cannot hope to do it justice.

Pine handles the Scots accent convincingly enough and there’s nice supporting work by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the pugnacious James Douglas, one of Robert’s closest allies. Those hoping for an appearance by the infamous spider of legend will be sadly disappointed, but lovers of stirring action will find plenty to enjoy here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney