STARRING: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Tony Curran, Lorne MacFadyen, Alastair MacFadyen, James Cosmo, Callan Mulvey, Paul Blair, Stephen Dillane, Steven Cree, Rebecca Robin and Stewart Brown
A true David v Goliath story of how the great 14th Century Scottish ‘Outlaw King’ Robert The Bruce used cunning and bravery to defeat and repel the much larger and better equipped occupying English army.
Outlaw King is David Mackenzie’s followup to 2016’s High or Hell Water, once again collaborating with Chris Pine. The film takes us back to the early 1300’s, where we witness John Comyn, Robert Bruce and Scottish nobility surrender to Edward I of England, who promises to return seized lands to the nobility in exchange. Robert is then betrothed and set to wed his goddaughter, Elziabeth de Burgh. As time passes, Bruce notices a shift in how unpopular the English are amongst the people, and once he witnesses the reaction to a body part of William Wallace displayed in public, he starts to plot a rebellion against the English and tries to persuade his fellow countrymen to overthrow their rulers. One man in particular looking to support his quest is James Douglas, a man looking to reclaim his family land and name back.
David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King is very well directed, particularly the opening one-shot sequence that not only shows Robert Bruce, John Comyn and a few of the Scottish nobility surrender to Edward I, we see the underlining conflict of Robert and Edward’s heir, the Prince of Wales, during a spar and then we see Edward I’s launching the treaty by launching Greek fire at a nearby castle. It’s a well constructed sequence, only topped by the climax battle known as the Battle of Loudoun Hill. That sequence is epic in scale, dirty, violent and very gory death moments involving men and horses. His direction is complimented well by Barry Ackroyd, especially capturing the scenery/landscape shots of Scotland. The cast as a whole are mostly solid. Florence Pugh shines as Elizabeth de Burgh, goddaughter of Edward I who is given to Robert the Bruce to wed. Once she begins to feel comfortable around Robert’s nature, she’s headstrong and willing to sacrifice everything to be by her side. Tony Curran is reliable as ever as Angus MacDonald, one of Robert’s allies that’s there to not only follow him into battle, but give him council when the going gets tough. Aaron Taylor-Johnson however is the scene-stealer here playing James Douglas, a man that joins Robert the Bruce’s rebellion in order to reclaim his family’s land and name from Edward I. His arc borderline’s camp and could come across that way in any other film, but his maniacal behaviour when fighting, shouting ‘Douglas’ repeatedly as he slices every Englishman in his path, works within the seriousness of Mackenzie’s film.
While Chris Pine is a fine lead actor, whilst they try to make you support the character’s quest, a David v Goliath story after all with his rebellion requiring guerrilla warfare taking on a superior army with larger numbers, his performance can seem flat as he’s left to be the strong, silent type shell of a character. While Taylor-Johnson borderline’s going camp as Douglas, Billy Howle goes full camp in most scenes here as Robert’s enemy as Edward, Prince of Wales. Howle is loud, crazy-eyed half the time, reminiscent of a child throwing a strop if things don’t go his way. Granted we can see why when he witness how his father treats him, but it’s comical and out of place compared to everyone else’s performance in the film. Another issue for me was the films runtime. It’s no secret to anyone that was following the films progress before its release on Netflix that Mackenzie cut twenty minutes of the original cut that premiered TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). The can tell that it shows, particularly in the first act as while we’re meant to care about the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth in the first act, it feels like there’s a few scenes missing there as she goes from distant around Robert to willing to put her life on the line for his ambitions. The underlining conflict between the Bruce and Comyn is resolved somewhat quickly, rather too quickly, even though the scene in question is well done. I thought the pace was too quick in that regard until it took it’s time to lead to the films final act which may feel anti-climatic to some viewers.
I’m curious as to what David Mackenzie’s original cut at TIFF was like as the first half of Outlaw King seems to move rather quickly past certain sub-plots, particularly the Bruce/Comyn conflict as well as Bruce’s relationship with Elizabeth. The film overall is fine however, with some really good direction from Mackenzie, particularly in the opening scene and battle sequences, good cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, and really good supporting performances from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Florence Pugh. 6/10