Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie Braveheart wasn’t just an Oscar-winning box office hit, it helped reinvent the battle scene. The epic, bloody confrontations between the English army and William Wallace’s Scottish forces were chaotic, bloody, and extremely violent and influenced everything everything from Gladiator and Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones. Its influence can be felt just as well in Outlaw King, which is now available on Netflix, which brings a savage era of British history vividly to life.
The movie actually overlaps with the events of Braveheart. It’s set in the early 14th century, during the First War for Scottish Independence, during which the Scots attempted to defeat the occupying English, who were under the command of King Edward I. The movie focuses on Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), who was appointed King of Scots and led the ultimately successful campaign against the English after the death of William Wallace. It’s set over a short period of time, between the initial early peace between the English and the Scots and the Battle of Loudoun Hill, where Robert’s small army faced down a huge and heavily armed battalion of English soldiers.
Outlaw King has picked up some attention for that fact that the version that premiered at the Toronto International Film festival in September was a very different cut to what can now be watched on Netflix. After a negative critical reaction, director David MacKenzie drastically re-edited film, streamlining it and removing 20 minutes from the running time. The results certainly do not drag–one of the complaints of that first version–but in this age of longform TV storytelling, the movie suffers in its eagerness to get from thrilling action scene to the next.
On the plus side, the film is brilliantly shot and, for the most part, superbly acted. Pine is best known for playing Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot movies, but his portrayal of the angry, determined Robert is impressive. He has relatively little dialogue, and none of Kirk’s wise-cracking charm to fall back on, but convinces as a man who will stop at nothing to protect his family and reclaim his country (his accent is pretty good too). There is able support from Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones) as Edward I, who isn’t looking for war, but is equally determined the crush the Scottish uprising, plus an affecting performance from rising star Florence Pugh (AMC’s recent The Little Drummer Girl), as Elizabeth, Robert’s English bride.
MacKenzie has previously been known for smaller movies such as the prison drama Starred Up and 2016’s superb thriller Hell or High Water (also starring Pine), but Outlaw King shows he is equally adept at lavish period epics. The movie opens with an outstanding 10-minute single take as the Scottish surrender to English is agreed, and he uses the bleak beauty of the Scottish landscape to striking effect. And the battle scenes are hugely impressive in their staging. The climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, as the two sides clash in unforgiving marshland, drenched in rain, mud, and blood, is both thrilling and incredibly brutal.
But while Outlaw King is a visually impressive film, the story is less well told. The pace means that we spend little time with the characters–the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth suffers, in particular her change from the reluctant wife given to Robert by the English to devoted spouse, willing to put herself in danger to stand by her man. The villainous performance by Billy Howle as King Edward’s incompetent but merciless son is far too broad–his evil, sneering, scene-chewing bad guy turn feels like it should be in a far sillier movie. And the movie often falls back on the clichés we associate with this kind of film–from the expected early defeats and moments of self-doubt to previously reluctant armies turning up at the last minute–which, again, might be cinematic shorthand to keep the story moving, but ultimately hurt the movie.
Outlaw King does many things right and is worth watching, particularly on the biggest screen you can find. But the good elements only serve to highlight the weaker ones–a less conventional telling of this story, that focused on character as much as action, would have elevated it even higher.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Superbly staged battle scenes||The story feels rushed|
|Strong performances||Characters underdeveloped|
|Moves quickly and is never boring|