Outlaw King (2018) – Review

Contemporary mashes with the old-school in this grimy, violent tale. 

For all its brazen historical inaccuracies, Braveheart is a cornerstone of historical filmmaking. Not for its authenticity, but the sense of grandeur; the perfect Horner score, the meaty runtime, the full throttle violence. A major criticism of Gibson’s Oscar-winner was its portrayal of later Scots hero, Robert the Bruce, as a conniving sellout to the English. David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, a film definitely more suited for the big screen than Netflix, seeks to turn the tide, and in painting a portrait of the legend, he succeeds.

The film starts close to where its older brother ended; Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) swears his allegiance to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) in 1304 following William Wallace’s defeat, with him now in hiding. A year later, Bruce discovers in Berwick that Wallace was found, and subsequently hung, drawn and quartered (spoilers, whoops), and the public unrest towards to the resident English is growing. This sparks the beginning of his triumphant odyssey, taking hold of Scotland’s throne and leading an army to the cataclysmic Battle of Loudoun Hill in 1307.

© – Netflix

That’s the shorthand version of Bruce’s packed journey to becoming a Scottish legend, appropriate for the feature; Outlaw King (following emergency recuts after its initial Toronto premiere) is a relatively snappy 120 minutes. The pacing is perfect, hitting familiar beats to the Gibson’s epic without falling into the overlong pitfall.

Mackenzie opens the film with an extravagant long-take, starting in a tent and roaming around a muddy camp as English royalty establishes their power in the area. Bruce duels with Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) – in one of the most blatant Chekhov Gun’s in recent memory – in a not-so-friendly fashion. It culminates in a majestic catapult shot across a huge landscape, a testament to consistently wonderful engrossing production and costume design.

There are broad strokes of other, very different filmmakers in Mackenzie’s direction; the single-takes are reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron, the way he navigates rustic landscapes is almost Iñárritu-like, and strangest of all, there are a multitude of small zooms akin to what you’d see in an episode of The Office. The latter severely drops the viewer out of the experience, often confusingly jarring and setting an entirely different feel to the piece each time. The editing can also be quite restless in the more intimate moments, switching from face to face without the confidence to let the camera soak in a single expression.

In this regard, the meeting of contemporary filmmaking and old-school techniques is not an amicable one. It’s strange really, considering Mackenzie’s previously seen aptitude in Hell or High Water. He does allow Barry Akroyd’s cinematography to glisten in the wider views (a nighttime assault by fiery arrows is harrowingly beautiful), and the battle scenes are fastidiously realised, both guts-to-the-floor brutal and terrifyingly immersive. For this reason, the last stretch works on all levels; the direction settles into comfort, the performances level out and the emotional investment is tight.

© – Netflix

But before we get there, numerous are the problems. The screenplay, written by the triplet of Mackenzie, Bash Doran and James MacInnes often leaves much to be desired, striving for unearned impact in some rather corny dialogue (“Are you a good man?” a soldier asks Bruce, to which he replies, “I’m trying to be”) and a tiresome amount of lines intended to be powerful due to the fact they are shouted rather than spoken. “You cheeky wee shite” is a highlight though.

Pine is rather good as the Scottish icon, wading his way through a difficult accent with only the odd stumble, and generally delivering a captivating performance. His charisma is tamed, more sensitive than anticipated (particularly in his scenes with Elizabeth Burgh, played by Florence Pugh who emerges as a talent to truly be reckoned with). The strongest member of the cast is Aaron Taylor Johnson, however, turning in a thrilling show as a feral brawler on the axe-edge of sanity due to the hardship pressed upon him, overcoming the iffy script and never failing to steal a moment. Howle is the weak link as the petulant English prince, never managing to rise to the momentous importance of his character.

The storytelling may be a bit hamfisted, not always segueing to effective extent, but Outlaw King is hugely entertaining in many ways. The grotesque violence is gloriously abhorrent, the set-pieces are big and bombastic, the music captures the rise, fall and emotions of the turbulent mission, and Pine’s penis seems to be sealing the deal for some. But there’s a lack of valiant spectacle, which saved Braveheart from totally disregarded falsity, beneath the hacked torsos and bloodied beards which will likely be the film’s lasting memory post-viewing.

Gut-churning violence animates a potentially great film, about a great man, troubled by baffling decisions behind the camera. 

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm