A handsome but uneven historical epic.
This is an advance review out of the Toronto International Film Fest 2018. Outlaw King premieres on Netflix on November 9.
Netflix’s Outlaw King is a beautiful-looking but uneven historical drama featuring an uncertain lead performance from Chris Pine. The film, which reunites Pine with Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie, has the heart but seldom the fighting spirit of the battle-crying, sword-wielding underdog epics of yesteryear that it wants to evoke.
The story chronicles Robert the Bruce’s (Pine) journey from defeated rebel to King of Scots, waging a campaign to win the crown and unite his countrymen against their English overlords. Shot on location in Scotland, director David Mackenzie (and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) captures the damp and dreary beauty of his native country. The movie begins with a nearly 10-minute-long, one-take scene that includes an oath ceremony, a duel, and a catapult firing on a castle. It’s a promising start but after that the film progresses on unsure footing, as rough and rocky as the terrain its characters travel. The narrative lurches from perfunctory political scenes to countryside ambushes to quieter moments and then repeat.
Outlaw King rallies in the homestretch, climaxing with the bloody and muddy Battle of Loudoun Hill (the film seems to also borrow elements from the later Battle of Bannockburn). This sequence provides all the gory medieval mayhem and chainmail-piercing carnage you might expect from such a historical epic, but it’s also tough to tell combatants apart. Still, it’s a viscerally effective sequence even if it never reaches the rabble-rousing heights of Braveheart. (Yes, that is the first of several Braveheart mentions to come as Outlaw King is a spiritual sequel to that 1995 Oscar winner. There’s an even an appearance by William Wallace, who is played by a guy even grimier and crazier-looking than Mel Gibson was in that film.)
Chris Pine never seems comfortable in the role of Robert the Bruce, often looking like even he can’t believe he’s all dressed up playing a medieval warrior-king. Some of that may stem from his unconvincing accent, but Pine never quite manages to help one suspend their disbelief at seeing an American star playing a Scottish legend the way Gibson did in Braveheart. While Pine finds the humanity and vulnerability in this larger-than-life figure, from poignant moments with his men and his family to flashes of desperation or rage during the battle scenes, he just never seems at home in the piece. When seen alongside European actors who all appear far more comfortable in their characters’ skins and period garb, Pine comes across like an anachronism.
His co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson often steals the show with his wild-eyed turn as James Douglas, Robert’s ally who’s out to win back his lands and his family name. Douglas has a purpose and a goal that’s far more potent and universally relatable than Robert the Bruce’s broader political agenda. It’s not until later in the film, when Robert is given a personal motivation for vengeance, that the character and Pine’s performance rise above delivering costume drama platitudes and stalwart epic hero talk of loyalty, land and lords.
In addition to Taylor-Johnson, the supporting cast features notable turns from Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce’s politically arranged wife Elizabeth de Burgh, Billy Howle as the Prince of Wales (depicted as a brat-who would be-king, complete with a bowl cut), and Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane as English king Edward I (yes, the same nasty “Longshanks” depicted in Braveheart). Tony Curran also turns in a suitably gruff performance as Robert’s trusted ally, Angus Macdonald.
Outlaw King does manage to find some moments of levity amidst all the grime and bloodshed, as well as a few nice breathers where we see the simple joys of the Scots’ community. When the film works, it can be very engaging but it is simply too inconsistent.