When it comes to Scottish heroes in cinema, William Wallace is the one that leaps to mind first – we all remember Braveheart and Mel Gibson as the lead. But another icon can be found in Scottish lord Robert the Bruce, who fought with the sole objective of freeing his country from the British yoke, a man and a destiny that director David Mackenzie intends to honour.
Outlaw King opens with a capitulation, a general bad omen for what is to follow. Under a gloomy tent, Robert the Bruce, played by a going grey Chris Pine, has no other choice but to give up his crown to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) before confronting the psychopathic Prince of Wales (played by a remotely convincing Billy Howle) in a supposedly friendly duel which doesn’t fool a soul. In the distance, a castle goes up in flames, hit by a catapulted ball of fire as an ironic signature at the bottom of a Scottish act of surrender.
With a clash of swords and shields, and the death rattles of wounded horses, Outlaw King lets itself be carried away by its enthusiasm, losing sight of the narrative and real aim as the story unhurriedly transforms into a patchwork of gruesome battles and ailing romance. The incandescent Florence Pugh stars in the role of young Elizabeth de Burgh, King Edward I’s goddaughter, as she is first seen being offered in marriage to Robert. At first, she resists, but barely. He is kind to her and quickly, she devotes her life to her husband and daughter-in-law. Her loyalty is strong and unquestionable, all of it in a very short amount of time. It is here that the films starts to fall down.
Outlaw King stands to its title, displaying various sequences with Robert’s troop on the run along with gratuitous repetitions of scenes showing weddings and multiple coronations. But the film spends a great amount of time urging us to feel, when the action it shows inspires numbness. As lovely and ambitious the intentions are, the poorly developed characters fail the storyline and refrain the audience to get attached to any of them. No doubt that Robert’s portrayal is the one of a good man, that he deeply cares about his family, his subjects, his cause, but the film whispers discreetly to the ear, when you have been expecting it to shout all along.
Highlight of it all, Chris Pine does a fine job as Robert – although his Scottish accent is debatable. He’s got expressive and piercing eyes, an essential match to play the dormant anger in Robert’s mind. The duo he forms with Florence Pugh is also a glimmer of light in an obscure plot. If only their characters had been given more on screen time, a few more lines in the script to unfold and develop the credibility of a profound love we know his there and latent.
Outlaw King is, all in all, a tale in which you can smell the blood and the mud, an intrigue that keeps you restlessly pining for the feel of a dagger through the heart, but that only leaves on the skin the ghost of a superficial scratch.
by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.