REVIEW: Outlaw King (2018)

In the aftermath of Scottish patriot William Wallace’s death, the lord Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) claims the crown of Scotland and sparks a fresh rebellion against the English King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). England’s king declares Robert an outlaw, and sends his son the Princes of Wales (Billy Howle) to quash the Scottish patriots for good.

Welcome to what is effectively Braveheart II, given that David McKenzie’s muscular 14th century war movie loosely picks up where Mel Gibson’s popular epic left off. It is also forced to work under Braveheart‘s looming shadow; a challenge that McKenzie handles remarkably well. The main point of differentiation is that Outlaw King does a remarkably good job with historical accuracy, whereas Braveheart is widely cited as one of the least accurate historical epics ever put to screen. There are no kilts to be seen, for one thing. A key death portrayed in both films now occurs in the right place and circumstance. It is not a faultless replica of historical events, but then nor should it be: this is, as Braveheart was, a work of popular fiction. In the struggle between accuracy and entertainment, it is really entertainment that should be a filmmaker’s priority.

The accuracy does seem to extended to Robert Bruce himself. While he is portrayed in Gibson’s film as a relatively callow and unreliable ally to William Wallace, here he is presented in a much more positive manner by star Chris Pine. It is a great lead performance, and to his credit Pine manages a more convincing Scottish accent than the typical Hollywood star provides (Gibson included). He is a stirring man of action on the battlefield and a canny strategist, but also prone to miscalculation: in an early scene he stabs his chief Scottish rival to death in a moment of panic. That would be folly enough, except he’s also foolish enough to commit the murder in a church.

Stephen Dillane is an excellent King Edward, packed with fire and contempt and resenting what he sees as incompetence from his disappointing heir (also Edward). The film takes an even-handed approach with the younger Edward, effectively omitting any sense of his long-debated homosexuality and instead portraying him as a fairly tragic figure. He seems a relatively gentle soul, one whose violence turns to monstrous excess as he strives to impress his ever-unforgiving father. Actor Billy Howle, as well as a strong screenplay, make him one of Outlaw King‘s most interesting characters.

It is a generally very fine cast throughout. In particular Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays to the cheap seats as the wonderfully violent James Douglas, while Florence Pugh brings smarts and dignity to her portrayal of Robert’s wife Elizabeth de Burgh. Pugh’s performance is important in particular, since she provides most of the female representation in what is an overwhelmingly male story.

The film’s action is well staged and paced, although McKenzie makes some interesting choices in regards to what historical battles to portray and which to omit. The film climaxes with the Battle of Loudoun Hill, rather than the more expected (and much more famous) Battle of Bannockburn, but admittedly does manage to massage history just enough to make it work.

This is an impressive work of historical entertainment for Netflix, whose original feature films really are beginning to deliver strong dividends. Outlaw King never quite emerges from Mel Gibson’s shadow, but it is a well-crafted companion piece that picks up the brutal violence of Braveheart and carries it down a road with greater accuracy, thoughtfulness and smarts.

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