David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, dictating a semi-historical retelling of the leg of the Scottish War for Independence led by Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), presents itself as a modern update of Braveheart. Picking up the thread where William Wallace’s uprising ends (we see a limb of Wallace’s quartered body hanging as an instigator for Robert the Bruce’s rebellion), Mackenzie commits to a similar level of visceral bloodshed that Gibson did in his 1995 film.
Opening with an impressively-staged, swirling long take, we meet the composed yet quarrelsome Bruce, who immediately falls into a duel with the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) after reluctantly pledging fealty to the King of England. This sets up the rather banal hero-villain dynamic that will carry on through the narrative. It also establishes Mackenzie’s deft ability to compose massive shots without the crutch of rapid editing and tight framing. The choreography of this inaugural nine-minute sequence is glorious, but it is a high the film does not reach again.
The set pieces, of which there are many, all engage with a similar level of deep staging and intricately-choreographed action. But they lack the dynamism of the long take and the carefulness of visual storytelling that makes the opening sequence so enthralling. The chaotic bloodletting is an adequate demonstration of the War’s remorseless politics and expendable soldiers. But with each successive battle, the warring becomes more rote and thus less shocking.
What is ultimately more interesting is the crude politicking that links each medieval skirmish. Pine’s Robert Bruce is not a profound statesman, but he leads with a blunt decisiveness and a loyalty that rallies his people. When the recognition that rebellion is the only answer hits him, he is immobile with pain and shock. In the very next shot, however, he is commanding his brothers about how to proceed.
This political angle, and the film’s romance subplot, are largely brushed over as merely a means of moving to the next violent set piece. As with William Wallace in Braveheart, Robert the Bruce is more of a symbol than a character, and thus his interactions with his daughter and his new wife (Florence Pugh) are fleeting moments in the vastness of war. Pugh adds emotional depth to her character in spite of receiving minimal dialogue, but there truly isn’t enough screentime with the couple to accept the subplot as anything other than filler.
And this is the problem with Outlaw King. The time spent on the battlefield far outweighs the time spent developing the soldiers who take part in it. What results is a film that feels overlong, which trudges through the mud with its soldiers in an attempt to reach a respite. Were it not for Mackenzie’s control over what moves in and out of frame, and the sense of depth created through DP Barry Ackroyd’s camera work, the film would suffer from plodding.
As it stands, though, Outlaw King is a spectacle piece that eschews depth of storytelling for visual depth. Pine and Pugh, although both performing at the top of their game, have little to work with within this structure. The splendor and squalor of war which surrounds them overtakes their characters, and they are lost in the grimly beautiful mire. The camera is the most ostentatious actor; it steals all of the scenes, for better and worse.
Outlaw King: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)