The Outlaw King movie review: Chris Pine makes for a convincing rebel in this Scottish historical drama
The Outlaw King, despite the slightly cookie-cutter quality of its David vs Goliath narrative, is made compelling by the performances of Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stephen Dillane and Florence Pugh
Scottish history is having its moment in the (pop culture) sun. While the Jacobite rising of 1745 and the adventures of 'Bonny Prince Charlie' (Charles Edward Stuart) have become popular thanks to Outlander's seasons 1 and 2, it is to a time much before that — the 14th century — that The Outlaw King, Netflix's new film starring Chris Pine, harks.
Cast your mind back to Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart. The Outlaw King takes up the story of the man who followed Wallace as the champion of Scottish independence, Robert I.
Robert the Bruce's story begins — in this film at least — with him putting aside years of rebellion and his own claim to the Scottish throne, to swear fealty to the English king Edward I. (Edward I seized control of Scotland in the succession crisis following Alexander III's death).
Bound by his father's word, and his own oath, Robert plays the role of loyal subject. However, on witnessing William Wallace's remains (who was hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor in London) being displayed all over Scotland, and the subsequent unrest among the local populace, Robert comes to a bold decision: to reignite the fight for Scottish independence.
A series of planned and unplanned circumstances see Robert being crowned King of Scotland, inviting a heavy-handed retaliation from Edward I.
It's an uneven contest: Edward with his thousands of trained soldiers and resources, Robert with a fraction of that army, and little in the way of guile. Soon after his crowning, Robert's men are routed, his wife and daughter captured and taken to London, one of his brothers killed, and the new king is himself on the run.
Cue visuals of a grizzled and desolate Chris Pine wandering through some truly spectacular Scottish landscapes. Pine, with his easy charm and pretty face, could easily have coasted along in a career built on innumerable romcoms. To see him instead in roles like The Outlaw King and Hell or High Water (both films for which he's teamed up with director David Mackenzie) is nice. He certainly makes for a good Robert; the performance is understated but convincing, and there's a reserve and quiet dignity to Pine that makes his portrayal of Robert the Bruce very appealing. He also manages to bring out not just the heroism of the character, but also the ambiguity of his motivations — for instance, was Robert's call to arms fuelled purely by patriotism, or was it a disguised grab for power?
The narrative itself follows the classic rise of the underdog/David vs Goliath model. Among the many stories told of Robert the Bruce is of how he was inspired to fight back against the English (after one too many defeats) on seeing a spider try — over and over — to climb a steep stone wall, although it kept falling off towards the ground. The anecdote, apocryphal or otherwise, doesn't make it to the film, but the never-say-die sentiment is depicted in how Robert decides to use guerrilla and scorched earth tactics to turn the tables on the hitherto triumphant English army.
Since The Outlaw King is based on true events, there are no spoilers here; suffice to say there's a satisfying war scene — the famed 1307 Battle of Loudoun Hill — which is cast in the mould of the 'Battle of the Bastards' from Game of Thrones.
It gives Robert a chance to show off his ingenuity, bravura — and oratory skills. It's a rousing little pep talk for his men that gets the job done, but to pretend it's anywhere close to the legendary speech that the Scots king delivered some years later before the Battle of Bannockburn — and which Robert Burns eulogised in his poem 'Scots Wha Hae' — would be silly.
While the cookie cutter template of the script is a grouse, there's a cast of several interesting characters to keep your mind off any shortcomings in the innovativeness department. There's Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce's second wife Elizabeth de Burgh; not much is known historically of Elizabeth, but Pugh plays her as a strong-willed, independent woman, who stands by Robert through thick and thin. Stephen Dillane plays Edward I as a character you'd definitely like to see more of, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson turns in a compelling act as Robert's loyal ally James Douglas. The battle sequences and power intrigues make for diverting viewing.
The Outlaw King doesn't take as much licence with history as Braveheart; however, some details have been changed for dramatic appeal. This makes the ending seem a little too neat and slightly contrived — not exactly how events played out in real life. While ticking many of the right boxes, the film also lacks a little something that might have elevated it to being truly great: It contents itself with being good, and that may not be the best memorial to a man who shaped so much of Scottish history, who reportedly exhorted:
"Lay the proud usurpers low,
Tyrants fall in every foe,
Liberty's in every blow! –
Let us do or dee."
The Outlaw King is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:
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