Over the years, director David Mackenzie’s fondness for outsiders has only grown. Think of the titular hero of Mister Foe, a loner peering in through windows at the warmth of other lives. Then there was Eric, in Starred Up, a 19-year-old offender jostled to the far fringes of society, into an adult prison. Hell or High Water, Mackenzie’s first collaboration with Chris Pine, saw two Texan brothers commit a series of bank robberies, like the cowboys of old. All of which makes Mackenzie’s new film, Outlaw King, something of a crowning achievement. When it comes to outsiders, after all, there are few more celebrated than Robert the Bruce, who spurned subjugation by the English and led Scotland during the First War of Scottish Independence.
To play Robert, Pine’s blond crop has been mowed into a mullet and clumped with mud and grime, but the blue of the actor’s eyes goes undulled and tinges the Highlands with a touch of Hollywood. Mel Gibson may have been a star when he played William Wallace in Braveheart, but the tumult of his on-screen presence suited the fevered uproar of his character’s cause. Here, Pine’s stoic softness seems at odds with the toughness that’s asked of him. He enters an arranged marriage with Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), a move to secure political standing, and the look on his face as she summarily shuts her bedroom door on him one night is that of a confused teenager. Later, as he drives a dagger into a fellow countryman’s throat, he looks stupefied, stricken by what seems to have happened to him.
Indeed, much has to happen to Robert to grant him outlaw status, and Mackenzie and his cadre of co-screenwriters fire a sharp rain of events at viewers in the film’s opening third. An irascible Edward I (Stephen Dillane) strong-arms Robert and a ring of noblemen into pledging their allegiance to England. Robert is arranged to marry Elizabeth. William Wallace is killed, and his death rankles the Scots into renewed rebellion. And Robert unites the lords and begins his campaign of disobedience. Outlaw King rattles along at a bracing pace, but the assured bloodshed of the final showdown looms large, casting a weary shadow over the film’s middle section.
A series of skirmishes and defeats beats back the rebellion, and the thrust of the campaign turns plodding. At the same time, the viewer’s attention is turned to Elizabeth, who’s captured by the English and dangled, from a gibbet, over a castle wall. By this point, the narrative feels like it’s fighting a war on two fronts, and its direction wavers. Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), is given sufficient opportunity to behave like an unbridled shit, with a bowl cut so extreme his comeuppance is inevitable. And Robert’s cause is joined by the embittered James Douglas. As played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who seems to divide his roles between likeable lunks and creeps, Robert is a mix of the two: a proud Scot who craves respect and the land that’s owed to him, and a snarling warrior who relishes the spray of blood.
By the time Outlaw King‘s finale finally rolls around, viewers might feel similarly ready for brutality, and they’ll be handsomely rewarded. This climax centers on the Battle of Loudon Hill and sees chivalrous tactics tossed aside. Hidden ditches, lined with rows of serried spikes, wait to catch the English cavalry off guard, and waves of soldiers pile in on one another in a sweaty melee. It’s the popcorn-movie payoff the audience is due after the previous slog, but the film’s suspense is punctured not just by the outcome having been written by history, but by the golden-boy presence of Pine, as a smile like his was never going to be felled on a field in Scotland.