Outlaw King (18)

IT may be more than 700 years since the events that shaped Robert the Bruce as a revered and often mythologised icon of Scotland’s history, but it feels like a vital time to tell his story on the big screen. Or rather the small screen, considering this big-budget epic from Scottish-born director David Mackenzie will be seen by most on Netflix.

Either way, it’s an effective piece of work, one that acts as more than just a cheap offshoot from Mel Gibson’s famously historically inaccurate Braveheart, going some way to correct what many felt was an unfair portrayal of Bruce in that film. And while it’s resolutely more about then than it is today, the political connective tissue cannot be ignored.

It opens with a brilliantly achieved single-take shot that establishes the crucial point in time in 1304 when Bruce (Chris Pine), after English victory at Stirling, reluctantly submits to and swears an oath of allegiance to King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane).

As part of the agreement, Bruce is quickly married off to the king’s God-daughter Elizabeth de Burgh, with rising star Florence Pugh bringing a complexity to the role so that she’s more than just the worrying wife and placid daughter.

Tensions are already bubbling when he is forced to work together with contentious fellow Scotsman John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) in order to help England govern the Scottish lands, as well as having to deal with the exertion of power at the hands of the king’s psychotic son Edward (Billy Howle).

When word arrives of that other famous historical figure William Wallace being executed, Bruce is declared an outlaw after he proclaims himself the rightful king of Scotland. With the help of loyal followers including the Lord of Islay (Tony Curran) and Lord of Douglas (an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson), he starts out on a path of rebellion to rid his land and people of English rule and reclaim the throne.

Mackenzie is no stranger to stories of hardened men fighting and railing against outside forces or the circumstances in which they’ve long been entrenched, from gritty prison drama Starred Up to Western bank robbery saga Hell Or High Water (also starring Pine).

His latest is a good exercise in shrewd economical historical storytelling; it’s well-paced and measured, making great use of picturesque and authentic Scottish scenery to both reflect the idealism and contrast the grisliness of the story it’s telling.

Mackenzie certainly doesn’t hold back on the brutal reality of the times, with the goriness of injuries and killing in plain sight. There’s a feeling of momentum to the narrative as it builds towards an appropriately brutal and messy depiction of the landmark 1307 Battle of Loudoun Hill in which we see the fascinating strategies employed to achieve victory.

It might seem an odd choice to cast Hollywood leading man Pine in the lead role. But he approaches the iconic figure in a way that avoids caricature, portraying him as a masculine yet sensitive man with big ideals and principles whom people can rally behind.

It doesn’t hurt that, nit-picking aside, he brings a commendable, lived-in and acted-through Scottish brogue where so many international actors fail spectacularly in that endeavour.

Anchored by his fine performance, it’s a deft film at exploring the inherent contradiction between a man who wanted to be king but was uncomfortable with the sacrifices that came with it, and one famed for his brawn having to use his head to navigate internal Scottish quandaries as much as pushing back against domineering foreign forces exerting their power.

It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of history and legend to cover here and inevitably things will be streamlined and left out. But what’s important here is that the film evokes the essence of the man as much as it gives a firm portrayal of what his outlaw rebellion stood for and meant to the people. His story is well framed into an imperfect but accessible and enjoyable spectacle that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty.

You can watch Outlaw King on Netflix now.