Eight years after William Wallace was defeated, England still controlled Scotland. Taxing the people into devastating poverty, the fight for freedom seemed a lost cause. Until the son of a downtrodden nobleman rose up and continued the fight as the “Outlaw King.”
Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce in this unofficial sequel to 1995’s “Braveheart.” This new film picks up eight years after the Battle at Falkirk. Wallace is in hiding and the Scots are left to languish in his absence. Noble families that joined Wallace’s fight have abandoned the cause in favor of peace with England. But after an arranged marriage with the king’s niece, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), and the death of his father, Robert realizes there is no real peace with King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). He sets out to recruit his fellow Scots into once again taking up the cause of freedom.
Pine has been a consistently strong performer since his early days. It is a fact that seemed to escape many people until he starred in director David Mackenzie’s Oscar nominated “Hell or High Water” two years ago. But his work in everything from “People Like Us” to “Wonder Woman” is good, and sometimes even brilliant. He brings his stunning blue eyes and charisma to this Scottish hero, conveying so much in the lines of his face. In any given moment he can transform a look from unbridled joy to deep anguish as he thinks of the personal toll this cause has taken. Pine is deeply committed to making the Outlaw King a fully rounded character with flaws and ambitions, hopes, and fears. It is a beautiful performance to watch in a film that mostly doesn’t rise to his level.
Florence Pugh is also very good as Elizabeth, Robert’s reluctant second wife. The script likely takes some historical liberties in describing the beginnings of their marriage, giving Robert the tender care of a man who isn’t toxically masculine. But it gives us reasons to invest emotionally in their story. The script certainly takes historical liberties with other aspects of Elizabeth’s experience. Which turns her into a woman that is strong and devoted to standing up for what’s right. What could have been merely an incidental wife becomes a source of strength for Robert, maintaining her own will in the process. It might not fully work the way it was intended, but it is still interesting to see, and Pugh has the right attitude. The kind that seems ready to accept her fate, but is really poised to stand her ground.
The other characters generally range from fine to forgettable. Stephen Dillane’s King Edward I bears a striking resemblance to his “Game of Thrones” alter ego, Stannis Baratheon. He is unwavering in his brutality, determined to stop even the smallest insurrection. Billy Howle plays his son, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward II. Howle has all the right mannerisms of a petulant tyrant, and it’s hard not to root for his downfall.
David Mackenzie directed “Outlaw King,” two years after “Hell or High Water” scored four Oscar nominations. The film’s frenetic and uneven pacing was odd, and a lot of that comes down to a sense that Mackenzie wasn’t always sure what parts of Robert’s story he wanted to really tell. The film moves from calm to astonishingly violent, sometimes with almost no warning.
Some of the problem may also come from the fact that there are three writers credited with penning the script, and others cited for additional work. Too many people had their hands on this story, and it showed. The historical inaccuracies are one thing, but the strange cuts, impossible to follow timeline, and a tendency to just skip over certain details makes this feel every bit its 102 minute run time.
That run time was longer. However, after a less-than-enthusiastic reception in Toronto, “Outlaw King” earned another visit to the editing room, where at least 20 minutes were cut from the final product. Some fans will be disappointed to learn that those 20 minutes also contained two notorious scenes in which Pine bears all. Of course, they still managed to find room for female nudity in the finished version.
The excised sequences also, reportedly, cut down on some of the war scenes, of which there are many. The battles are sometimes hard to follow because there is so much happening and the sides get muddled. But the choreography is well done and the violence is devastating. At least when you can fully see what is happening. Sometimes the camera work and editing are so quick that it is difficult to fully keep track of the action.
“Outlaw King” is one of those films that is well-constructed and well-performed. Ultimately, though, it leaves the viewer wishing it was something more. More focused, more attentive to detail. But its high production value signals that Netflix is headed in the right direction with its distribution choices and original content. This is a film that is better viewed on a big screen. It is not exactly a pleasant experience, but it is far from a miserable one. And sometimes, that’s a fine place to be.