Deep Focus: Outlaw King
Outlaw King makes sense mostly as a tale of two papa’s boys pitted against each other by blood and conquest, circa 1304. One is a healthy, loving lad: our rugged, bearded Scottish hero, Robert Bruce (Chris Pine), Earl of Carrick. He basks in the affection of his father, also Robert Bruce (James Cosmo), even if it leads him astray, as when he follows Da’s advice to accept King Edward of England as his overlord. The other is an insecure, satanic scrapper, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle). His desperate need for patriarchal approval results in clumsy transgressions, such as picking an arbitrary fight with his counterpart on a day meant for sadistic, serene English triumph. Stephen Dillane, as King Edward, gives the wittiest performance in the movie, peering at his scion with a minimalist scowl, as if he, like us, can’t understand why any red-blooded aristocrat would sport a pageboy haircut, which was named, after all, for pageboys.
Yes, it’s best to enjoy Outlaw King as an epic cartoon of dueling Oedipus complexes. How can you avoid it with patriarchs who not only name their successors but also name them after themselves? Robert rises above his internal conflict when he becomes the people’s monarch his father never dared to be. Edward resolves his love-hate by turning it into hate-hate. He foreswears his dad’s imperial strategies and unleashes his own brute id against Robert. His disrespect for the King’s deathbed wish is so absolute that it must feel as satisfying to the evil offspring as patricide.
Unfortunately, to make this concept work the viewers must do all the heavy and medium lifting for director David Mackenzie and his four fellow writers. They don’t employ a psychological motif, or any other kind, to unify and intensify this sprawling epic about Scottish and English armies kebabbing and butchering each other across tawny hills, evergreen forests, and sludge-brown battlefields—that is, when Prince Edward and his minions aren’t simply skewering, hanging, and gutting the disloyal opposition. Both sides revel in the ashes of scorched earth as they raid and pillage seats of power.
Outlaw King strives to be a hack-and-sack extravaganza that also samples medieval life and depicts three faces of Robert Bruce: sidelines observer, freedom fighter, and wise king. The movie never comes together, but there are several reasons to see it. Mackenzie gives his cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, a rare opportunity to use the Steadicam technique he explored so brilliantly in contemporary films by Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow to navigate the gory chaos of close combat in the Middle Ages. At the same time, Mackenzie and Ackroyd swoop through Scotland’s moors and mountains with all the gusto of Peter Jackson traversing New Zealand’s Middle Earth. In fits and starts it’s a kick to watch Pine, as Robert, go from slow-burning Solomonic ruler to powder-keg commander and back again, with the help of merry and not-so-merry men. He’s got one ginger, jovial sidekick, Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran), who amuses or calms him, and one hothead, James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who keeps him stoked. They’re always fiery or fun, but Florence Pugh is even better. She turns Robert’s arranged second wife, Elizabeth—King Edward’s own goddaughter—into a true Maid Marian figure, smart, ardent, and gallant. (Two weeks from now, will Eve Hewson match her as the new Maid Marian in the latest big-screen Robin Hood?)
For all its melodramatic tension and visceral force, the movie lacks the sturdy vision or conviction that would connect the audience to it emotionally and also provide lasting, cumulative power. A third of the way through, Pine’s freshly crowned King of Scots accepts homage from lords and vassals with virile noblesse oblige, while Howle’s perpetually unhinged Edward rouses his knights into bellicose hysteria like a bloodthirsty pep squad captain. I scrawled in my notepad, hopefully, “Fervor vs. Fever.” Had Mackenzie finally hit on a contrast that would generate emotional affinity for the monarch? Alas, no. Intent on being “realistic” even when a whiff of mythic inspiration is needed, Mackenzie reduces this retelling of Robert Bruce’s story from a national epic to As the Worm Turns.
Early on, Robert quietly signals his love of liberty. Still, pledging fealty to King Edward out of filial duty doesn’t make him vulnerable or sympathetic: it emasculates him. Pugh’s Elizabeth shows more mettle when she prevents an English press gang from drafting a mere stripling into military service. Only after the English draw and quarter legit rebel William Wallace (Braveheart himself) and display a fourth of his corpse in four separate cities does our hero aspire to become the Scots’ champion. In one of many spirited reconstructions of legend and history, Robert summons his chief rival to pow-wow in a church, hoping to secure Scottish unity; instead he knifes the startled man at the altar rather than risk betrayal. Mackenzie presents the deed as an impulsive act of national and self-preservation. The Scottish Church, seeking to preserve its independence, backs him up, royally.
His homicidal assault is not an aberration: Robert ultimately reacts in kind to English treachery. The English believe in destroying Scotland to save it—so Robert Bruce, like the enemy, abandons every rule of chivalry, mixing guerrilla skirmishes with lightning war: blitzkrieg with a burr. On the one hand, King Edward’s grim, bullet-headed viceroy (Sam Spruell) double-crosses Robert and ambushes his troops after vowing to engage in single-warrior combat. On the other, Robert’s wild-man lieutenant, Douglas, surprises occupiers in the chapel of his father’s castle and simply slaughters them. In a movie fully in control of its ironies, this savagery would register as bracingly honest. Here it’s more like penny-dreadful. Robert’s descent into vengeance-fueled barbarism appears to be something he can just shake off, like sand on the beach where he and Elizabeth share their obligatory storybook reunion.
At least one British critic has compared Mackenzie to Orson Welles for his use of a suspended cage that resembles Iago’s in Othello and for a mud-and-blood-strewn battle at Loudoun Hill that recalls the Battle of Shrewsbury in Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight. But real history, not reel history, dictates this director’s decisions. Accounts of Robert Bruce’s war cite the use of similar cages, and Robert’s tactical genius was to force the English army into the boggy landscape. Mackenzie has also been hailed for a lengthy opening shot that establishes the fatigue and confusion of the clans and King Edward’s vile wizardry for statecraft and siege engines. The monarch shows off the Warwolf, that notorious catapult—actually, a trebuchet—that could hurl 300-lb. missiles 200 yards at a speed of 120 mph and heights of 300-400 feet. As the king promises, it’s “a spectacle,” and so, for better and worse, is Outlaw King.
The best point of comparison is Peter Watkins’s pioneering 1964 BBC docudrama about the Jacobite uprising, Culloden, a brilliant, shoestring reconstruction of the British Army routing Highland clansmen fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Battle of Culloden (1746). As arresting as solid Vietnam-era journalism and done in the same veracious style, it’s framed as the reporting of an unseen interviewer and shot in 16mm black and white. (Dick Bush did the galvanizing handheld cinematography.) This movie electrifies an audience even with its analysis of clan structure, capturing the moral obscenity of the “feudal pyramid” requirement that men fight at the whim of their landlords. The revelatory charges keep coming as the Highlanders, under Bonnie Prince Charlie’s inept leadership, get reduced to cannon fodder. Watkins had one modest field gun at his disposal, but his smoke effects and dexterous staging and editing suggest a wall of artillery. More importantly, his focus on each nonprofessional actor’s bewilderment and anguish makes his grapeshot more potent than Mackenzie’s 300-lb projectiles.
Mackenzie wants to pop our eyes and tingle our spines with exotic sights and sensations while mourning the human waste of war. He struggles to celebrate battle-axe heroism while questioning it. His dual aims cancel each other out: what’s left is a shallow, generalized excitement that fails to cast a shadow or a spell. Watkins, on the other hand, has a lucid pacifist-leftist point of view that girds every shot with outrage. Don’t get me wrong: we need big-audience movies with sweep and ambition, like Outlaw King. If only it were better. Watkins’s Culloden has something far more precious than a dozen or so dazzling sights. It has true moviemaking vision.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and is on the editorial board of Alta: The Journal of Alta California.