Like his predecessors, the handful of homegrown Scottish film-making talents, David MacKenzie went south then across the pond once his name started to mean something. This is no knock on him but simply a reflection of how Scotland to this day offers little to no support for rising stars in the world of film. We are still without our own film studio, although plans for one have been in the works for what feels like an age, and it is still all but accepted that Scots who want to enter the arts should go to London like everyone else. MacKenzie made well regarded Scottish films like Young Adam but it was 2016’s Hell or High Water that truly made him a force to be reckoned with. Of course, that was also his American debut.
However, MacKenzie has also done something few others before him have had the opportunity to: He’s come home. And he’s brought Netflix with him. Outlaw King is a cinematic unicorn: A Scottish historical drama directed by a Scot, co-written by a Scot (playwright David Harrower), filmed almost exclusively in Scotland, starring a plethora of major Scottish talent, and in the lead role of the legendary Robert the Bruce is… Chris Pine. Well, we can’t have them all.
As Scotland awaits the glory of Accent Watch, Toronto officially opened its illustrious festival with Outlaw King, thus giving Netflix another point of legitimacy in their corner. Reviews for this one were pretty tepid upon its premiere, which surprises me since the film itself does exactly what it sets out to do. Call it patriotism but I found much to enjoy in this old-school historical action flick. David MacKenzie wants to give you blood, battles, brooding and rousing patriotism with the waters muddied just enough to stop things from going full Braveheart.
Where Mel Gibson’s rallying cry for freedom giddily stabbed its way into jingoism, MacKenzie isn’t so interested in such concepts, mostly because Scottish history itself lacks the necessary clean narrative. Scotland didn’t unify, its disparate leaders did surrender and some of them were happy to side with their English settlers over a fellow Scot whose clan chief they disliked. The politics are simplified for a big Hollywood movie but the heroism of Bruce himself is forever thrown into question. The pacing remains a problem, as massive amounts of tangled history are condensed to a cozy night-in of viewing. Bruce’s relationships with the various clan chiefs are often reduced to quick dialogue exchanges over how they do or don’t like one another.
Scots will take delight in the presence of reliable character actors like Steven Cree, Tony Curran and James Cosmo, the latter of whom gets a brief moment in the spotlight thanks to a cracking mini-monologue that exposes the stifling guilt de Brus (Bruce’s father) feels for having surrendered to the English. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has chosen to play James Douglas as, to put it in local terms, a bit mental. The wide feral eyes and guttural screaming are certainly a choice made by the actor, although one gets the impression he thought he was going to be in a much camper movie. As she often is in life, the true standout is Florence Pugh, who plays Bruce’s wife. She made a seismic impression in Lady Macbeth and while her role here is less meaty, her ability to project steeliness and fragility simultaneously cannot help but force all eyes on her.
But of course I know why you’re all here. What about Chris Pine?
First, the accent: Solid 6/10. He does roll his Rs a bit too much and should have lessened up on emphasizing his Ts but he does not disgrace himself. He’s also committed to this gruff voice that’s deeper than how he usually speaks so that may be affecting it. However, he does also get fully naked for two scenes, one of which is a delightfully female gaze-y sex scene, so it all works out. He plays Bruce as a man who is so easy for some men to follow into battle and so easy for others to outright reject him. Still the best Chris? Why are you even asking me that question when you know the answer?
All in all, Outlaw King is a good movie with great moments that signals a strong move forward for David MacKenzie. There are moments of such directorial confidence — a totally showboating opening scene seemingly done in one take sticks out — that you can’t help but wonder if those future Bond director rumours are totally true. The only downside to his style is a slight over-reliance on shaky-cam for the myriad battle scenes. Sure, it creates a sense of freneticism but sometimes you just want to see the carnage. The film is also the perfect movie for Netflix to release as part of their ongoing strategy of cinematic domination. It may not linger long in the mind but for all involved it’s Mission Accomplished.
Header Image Source: Courtesy of TIFF