Winds up a slog, incorporating the driest moments of “Game of Thrones” sword-and-armor politicking with the dull rota of a history lesson.
The specter of Braveheart hangs over David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, which follows the efforts of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) to unify Scotland under his banner against the English invasion. Both concern the 14th-century English invasion of Scotland and subsequent guerilla war by the Scots, and both mingle sweeping battle re-enactments with more intimate melodrama. To Mackenzie’s credit, he manages to wholly avoid the more laughable revisions of Mel Gibson’s historical travesty, with a focus on the political intrigues and subtler forms of strategy used to oust the English over the visceral thrill of gory combat. Yet in removing the more direct impact of the material, the film frequently winds up a slog, incorporating the driest moments of “Game of Thrones” sword-and-armor politicking with the dull rota of a history lesson.
The film begins with the seeming victory of Edward I (Stephen Dillane), with various Scottish lords bending the knee and acknowledging him as their king in exchange for retention of their lands and titles. This includes Robert, who sees the Scottish resistance as futile and broken. Alternately respected and suspected by the English, Robert enjoys a certain rapport with his new rulers even as they keep an eye on him and his legitimate claim to the Scottish throne. The suspicions of Edward and his son (Billy Howle) are confirmed after a few years of uneasy peace when Robert sees the lingering tensions among the Scottish people flaring up into uncontrollable riots and promptly sets about gathering an army to reignite the war. Declaring himself King of the Scots, Robert begins to entreat other lords to flock to his banner.
This is a basic enough setup, but the film loses focus almost immediately, getting bogged down in minutiae that does not even relate to Robert’s quest to convince reluctant lords to join his cause. A great deal of the early stretch of the film deals with Robert’s marriage to the much younger Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), with Robert delicately avoiding the consummation of his marriage out of consideration for her nervousness. This minor b-plot comes to take up a surprising amount of the film as Elizabeth is given a more and more prominent role as one of her husband’s chief supporters, but it distracts from the already knotty depiction of Robert’s political machinations, which runs afoul of the same issue that plagues “Game of Thrones” in that all the lords start to bleed together. Apart from Pine, only Howle makes any real impression, playing up Edward II as a new king outraged to be stuck with the mess of his father’s quagmire, giving every impression that he is continuing the Scottish campaign out of some sense of national obligation rather than his own desire to expand his kingdom.
It doesn’t help that Mackenzie shoots the film with studio hack functionality. Scenes of Robert interacting with other nobles are filmed with unnecessarily circling motions that attempt to add some sense of dynamism to conversations but instead add to the confusion of keeping characters separate. Action scenes fare much worse, with Mackenzie using hand-held cameras not in the usual chaos cinema action style but something akin to an NBC one-camera sitcom, lightly bobbing during scenes of guerrilla warfare with occasional, baffling punctuations of snap-zooms on faces of anguish that end up looking like reaction shots on “The Office.” This is especially egregious during the Battle of Methven, a complete rout in which Robert’s entire army was destroyed and he barely escaped with his life. What should be a devastating view of a total disaster instead flirts with comedy as shots of Robert’s closest friends dying are juxtaposed with sudden zooms into his anguished face. What’s more, master shots of the Scottish landscape boast some of the worst digital composting in some time, with every single vista flattened with plastic, shimmering image artifacts.
At times, Mackenzie displays flashes of brutish ingenuity. For all the tacky plasticity of the digitally flattened vistas, some of the more intimately scaled shots have a fetid verisimilitude to them, all slick mud and horse waste. There are also moments where the film makes a genuine impact, none more so than in a scene when the weary defeat of the Scottish people is suddenly roused into a roiling wave of grief and fury when the British capture and execute William Wallace and send one of his roughly torn arms into a hamlet as a symbol of warning. The sight of the severed limb brusquely nailed to a post in the town square for all to see and the ripples of intense, uncontrollable emotions it elicits from the people, who promptly riot so ferociously that the British are caught entire off-guard, is such an intense transference of collective perspective to the viewer that it briefly elevates Outlaw King into something nasty and righteous. It’s a shame that for all the underlining of Robert the Bruce as a true leader of people, the film never again comes close to matching that sense of populist rage.