Outlaw King review: You can't help but admire the scale of this Scottish epic
With Netflix backing him to the tune of a reported $90m-plus budget, director David Mackenzie is able to deploy vast armies
David Mackenzie; Starring: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Stephen Dillane, Callan Mulvey, Tony Curran. Cert 18, 121 mins.
In the early days of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the novelist behind the series, George RR Martin, used to complain the producers skipped many of the battles in his novels because they were too expensive to film. David Mackenzie’s rousing, Scotland-set medieval epic Outlaw King faces no such problems.
With Netflix behind him, and a reported budget of more than $90m, Mackenzie is able to deploy vast armies in chainmail, gleefully slaughtering each other. He doesn’t skimp on the violence. If you want to know what being hanged, drawn and quartered really entailed, this is the film for you – Its 18 certificate comes as no surprise.
As a piece of Scottish history and as a story about independence and self-determination, Outlaw King is more problematic. The Scots here aren’t just baring their backsides to the English, as they did in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
Robert the Bruce (played by Hollywood star Chris Pine) is shown at the start of the movie consorting with the “auld enemy”. A key incident – which the film struggles to explain or make much sense of – comes early on, when Robert deals with his closest rival to the Scottish crown in an expedient fashion, by murdering him in a church. The killing shows a dark and ruthless side of Robert director Mackenzie clearly doesn’t want to explore too closely.
Later, the English break truces and scorn traditional rules of chivalry, but even they don’t resort to killing their enemies at the altar.
Pine is the star of the film and its cynosure – the camera is obsessively drawn to him. He gets many more close-ups than the impressive Florence Pugh, who plays Elizabeth Burgh, Robert’s English second wife; it’s an arranged marriage but they quickly and conveniently fall in love, thereby providing the film with its romantic subplot.
In one voyeuristic shot, Pine is shown full frontal naked for seconds as he emerges from a loch. He gives a thoughtful performance, portraying Robert as a reluctant warrior who turns to violence only when he must – making his murder of a rival all the stranger. The Hollywood draw’s Scottish accent doesn’t grate either.
As the story starts, it’s 1304. Edward I of England has seized power in Scotland, where the lords surrendered to him – although there are references to William Wallace still holding out.
Outlaw King begins in bravura fashion, with a single shot that lasts minutes. It shows Robert kneeling at Edward’s feet, pledging fealty to the English king. The camera then weaves through the ranks of Scottish nobles and follows Robert as he walks out of Edward’s tent into a muddy field beyond. Here, he is accosted by the king’s delinquent son Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), who challenges him to a mock duel with 10 pounds for the winner.
The shot ends with a huge catapult launching fire-filled boulders at a castle where a Scottish noble is still holding out. This overture not only reveals the extent of English power and Scottish humiliation, it introduces us to the film’s main characters and very deftly sketches the conflicts in miniature that will dominate the movie.
Edward (Stephen Dillane) is a Machiavellian figure with close ties to several Scots. It is implied his rule could have been tolerated – if only it weren’t for the poll tax. The English try to squeeze so much money out of the Scots rebellion becomes inevitable. Edward’s son (played with neurotic malevolence by Howle) is delighted to have the chance to suppress the rebellion in as sadistic a way as he can. “I have all the traits my father had save one: mercy,” he blithely announces as he slits the throat of yet another Scotsman.
Much of the storyline here is familiar from other Robin Hood-like tales, and films about Jacobites and warrior kings. Robert goes on the run, ending up at one stage with only 40 followers. He is betrayed. Many of those closest to him are killed. However, the film doesn’t always make the obvious choices. Its final set-piece isn’t the battle of Bannockburn but of Loudoun Hill seven years earlier – potentially leaving the way open for a sequel.
Mackenzie includes unexpected references to other movies – one main character is suspended from a castle wall just like Micheál MacLiammóir’s Iago in Orson Welles’s Othello – while leaving out elements one would have expected. Folklore has it Robert the Bruce’s try, try and try again philosophy was inspired when, on the run, he saw a spider trying to throw thread from one ledge of a cave to another – half a dozen times the spider failed before finally achieving success. The spider doesn’t weave its way in here though.
Braveheart was credited with boosting Scottish tourism and Outlaw King may well do the same. Between battles, it includes spectacular aerial shots of lochs and mountainsides. It’s a thunderous piece of storytelling but not an especially subtle one. With so many testosterone-driven action scenes, Mackenzie leaves little room for characterisation.
Figures like Robert’s fearless colleague James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), are very thinly drawn. None the less, Outlaw King is one of the most expensive films made in Scotland. Even when it stumbles, you can’t help but admire its epic scale and the sheer scope of its ambition.
Outlaw King launches on Netflix and in selected cinemas on 9 November