Written PostJosh Reviews The Outlaw King

Josh Reviews The Outlaw King

In Netflix’s new film The Outlaw King, actor Chris Pine reunites with 2016’s Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie for this tale of Robert the Bruce’s rebellion against the British in the 1300’s.  The film opens with the surrender of several Scottish lords, including Robert, to the English King Edward I.  While this seems like it could be the end of the violence between the English and the Scots, after seeing a riot over the display of the body of Scottish rebel William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and his family begin planning another revolt.  The film follows the path of this revolt, and Roberts’ being crowned King of the Scots.

I was a little dubious when I first saw Netflix’s omnipresent ads for this new film.  I’m a big fan of Chris Pine’s, but he has always felt to me like a very contemporary actor.  Would he be believable in this period-piece?  And could he pull off a Scottish accent without sounding silly?  But I loved Hell or High Water, so I decided to give The Outlaw King a try.

I’m glad I did, because I quite enjoyed the film!  This isn’t groundbreaking cinema.  There have been many compelling period piece films before, filled with drama and/or action, and I wouldn’t say that The Outlaw King adds anything hugely notable to the genre.  I find Mel Gibson somewhat distasteful these days, but for pure rousing entertainment, his film Braveheart is superior to The Outlaw King if you’re looking to just watch one movie about a Scottish rebellion against the English.

But don’t let that keep you away from The Outlaw King.  I was quite taken by this film, quickly engaged by the story and characters.  The cast is very solid, and there’s plenty of engrossing drama, a little humor, and much fierce violence.  I quite enjoyed it!

Robert the Bruce appeared in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (which told a slightly fictionalized version of William Wallace’s rebellion against the English), where he was played quite memorably by Angus Macfadyen.  In Braveheart, Robert wasn’t portrayed in a very positive light.  But here in The Outlaw King, which picks up the story following Wallace’s capture and execution, Robert is the hero.

As I wrote above, I had questions, going in, as to whether Chris Pine was the right choice to anchor this film, but Mr. Pine’s strong work in the film put all my questions quickly to rest.  I thought he was great!  His Scottish accent worked for me (and the film served him well by making the choice to keep the usually-verbose Mr. Pine rather quiet and reserved through much of the film), and his energy and charisma shone through as Robert, a man who was able to rally many to his side.  Robert, as portrayed here, was a far more stoic character than those Mr. Pine usually plays, and I was impressed by how skillfully Mr. Pine pulled this off.  He does a lot of his acting through his eyes, and there were a number of moments in which the film zoomed right in on those bright blue eyes, allowing us to see the full story playing right there across Mr. Pine’s face.  This was great work.

Florence Pugh plays Elizabeth de Burgh, the young English woman wed to Robert as a way of sealing peace between the Scots and the English.  When Robert begins his revolt against the British, Elizabeth is caught in the middle.  Ms. Pugh is having a heck of a year, between this and her leading role in The Little Drummer Girl (which I haven’t yet seen, but hope to catch up to soon).  I love that Elizabeth is given a lot of focus in this film — she’s almost a coequal lead with Mr. Pine’s Robert the Bruce — and Ms. Pugh is terrific, intelligent and charismatic.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson exploded into my attention as the lead of Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn’s fun adaptation of the terrific comic-book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.), and he was solid but under-used in Avengers: Age of Ultron.  But other than that, I haven’t been bowled over by his post-Kick-Ass performances.  (He was stiff and one-note in Godzilla, though I blame the script more than I do him.)  But, wow, he is fantastic here in The Outlaw King as James Douglas, Lord of Douglas.  Douglas is a bedraggled, weirdly jovial loner who joins Robert’s rebellion and swiftly becomes one of his best and most reliable fighters.  I had no idea until getting to the end credits that this character was played by Mr. Taylor-Johnson; he’s completely unrecognizable.  His performance is phenomenal — funny and energetic and hugely memorable.

Stephen Dillane plays the English King Edward I, and he’s great.  Often in this type of film, the British ruler is portrayed as elegant and refined (even if they are also brutal), but Mr. Dillane brings a lot of energy and passion to his role, making his Edward I unexpectedly (to me, at least) virile and fierce.  (The wonderful costuming and direction helps this performance, as we often see King Edward right there in the muck with the rest of the characters, rather than being separated from them up on a huge throne.)  Mr. Dillane was great on Game of Thrones as Stannis Baratheon, but he’s playing a much different type of king here, as his Edward is much more a man of passion and action than the reserved, dignified Stannis.

Billy Howle plays Edwards’ son, Edward, Prince of Wales.  Mr. Howle who sculpts Edward in the classic film-type of the son of a powerful father who turns bitter and vengeful, because he can never live up to his father.  It’s a bit of a familiar interpretation, but Mr. Howle brings a great sense of danger to the character.  He feels like a real threat to Robert, which is critical.

The Outlaw King opens with an extended sequence that all appears to have been shot in one take.  (If there are cuts, they are very well-hidden.)  It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, as we move in and out of King Edwards’ tent, meeting most of the main characters and getting our first taste of the rivalry between Robert and the Prince of Wales (who engage in a not-really-playful duel) and ultimately building to the brutal English assault on a Scottish walled city.  My grin grew wider and wider as the sequence went on and on.  This was a heck of a way to start the film!

There is some brutal violence in the film that is (intentionally) tough to watch at times.  Mel Gibson’s Braveheart set the tone for these sorts of intense, violent sequences of armies battling in the mud.  (I was also reminded of Game of Thrones’ incredible season six episode “The Battle of the Bastards”.)  It’s tough to top those scenes in Braveheart, and The Outlaw King doesn’t, though this film’s battle sequences are extremely well-made and exceedingly horrible and unpleasant.

The many grim events of the film — as well as, perhaps, an unconscious bias based on the sad ending of Braveheart — had me braced for The Outlaw King to end in tragedy.  I was pleasantly surprised that the film allowed us a mostly happy ending.  This was satisfying to me as a viewer, and allows me to recommend this film as an enjoyable piece of work to watch, even though some might find the violence to be tough to get through.

I’m glad to have seen The Outlaw King.  As I wrote above, there’s nothing hugely original or groundbreaking here, but this is a very solid piece of work, well-made by all of the talent in front of and behind the camera.