Deputy Culture Editor – Film & TV
Over twenty years after the release of Braveheart, Outlaw King is here to offer 13th-century Scotland and iconic national hero Robert the Bruce the on-screen portrayal it deserves. A Scots Oscar-nominated filmmaker, David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water, Starred Up) leads a Scottish crew filming in Scotland with a Scottish lead… oh wait! Sorry, is Chris Pine starring as the Bruce? Oh well, I am not sure I will watch this then.
This is pretty much the kind of talks you might witness in the wake of the release of the new Robert the Bruce film Outlaw King on Netflix and Scottish screens this month. In more polite circles, including those of the BAFTA Scotland members’ screening which was organised ahead of the screening in presence of director Mackenzie, you will witness the reverse. The crowd managed to avoid the contentious Braveheart comparison for nearly half an hour before a not-so-discerning audience member finally uttered the forbidden title of Mel Gibson’s historical farce. Mackenzie and his audience quickly swept the embarrassing reference under the rug, pointing to the lack of imagination of the viewer; “why can we not discuss this film beyond Braveheart and debates around the independence?”, they lament.
To MacKenzie, Outlaw King is about delivering a faithful account of the national past but he is careful not to relate his obsession for historical accuracy to the risible depiction presented in the Australo-American film which shall not be named. Kilts have been categorically banned and replaced by less flashy attire. Presumably, they are the result of thorough attention to historical accuracy rather than of artistic choices. The film is very careful to uphold a veneer of scientific credibility which necessity is highly questionable.
Going back to Chris Pine, I have to admit the man does an adequate job at the accent – helped by the fact that he does not actually say that much – and delivers an admirable performance as the troubled and unlikely political war leader. More than him, female lead Florence Pugh is magnetic as strong-headed Elizabeth de Burgh, the English noblewoman married to Robert to cement Scotland’s submission. Yet, with her character, my grievances start. She ultimately sits awkwardly with Mackenzie’s attempt at realism. She is an incredibly modern character, argumentative and furiously feminist, which suddenly disappears half-way through the film much to our disappointment. But MacKenzie had to make choices and, once more, historical accuracy seems to take precedence over narrative pleasures. Or maybe it was the spectre of the film-which-shall-not-be-named. Indeed, this one was heavily criticised for privileging the romantic arch between Mel Gibson and Sophie Marceau as Princess Isabella of France – the issue being Isabella was in fact a three-year-old infant at the time Wallace was leading the Scots to battle. Mackenzie has learnt from his predecessor’s mistake so de Burgh will disappear for 8 years, held hostage by the English, even if it means the film loses its most exciting character. Fair enough.
What is more exasperating is the use of violence and graphic nudity as a guarantor of some sort of authenticity brandished throughout the film. The film is comprised of a number of highly crafted, masterful battle scenes and flashes of extreme violence which are extremely cathartic. Yet, the current trend in heritage cinema which consist in equating bloodiness and authenticity is frankly an unimaginative and ultimately weary cliché. While historical accuracy overpowers strong female protagonists, it folds in the face of the vulgar appeal of the “historical slasher”. The bloodthirsty English are here lead by buffoon Edward, Prince of Wales. This unimpressive antagonist is a ridiculous mix of the two Game of Thrones ubervillains, stupid Joffrey Baratheon and sadistically camp Ramsay Bolton; he roams Scotland, disembodying, raping and setting fire to everything that moves with absolutely no purpose. Outlaw King is here only guilty of following current representational trends, but the absurd violence it displays is problematic considering the Scottish political context.
Despite Mackenzie’s quick dismissal of potential political undertones, I will most definitely take the film to these grounds. Heritage films are very much defined by their resonances with contemporary issues; it is arguably the only purpose for their existence as cultural discourses. Everyone surely remembers the embarrassing political times when Alex Salmond used the film-which-shall-not-be-named to justify the validity of Scottish nationalism. And no matter how many times Mackenzie refuses a political reading of Outlaw King, it is not really up to him and the narrative tenets of Outlaw King are still there for all to comment on.
Actually, the comparison between Braveheart and Outlaw King on both aesthetic and ideological levels are the very grounds on which the latter could have become a truly significant film. Yet, the creative team has preferred to disengage from their responsibilities and refuse to acknowledge how the film might feed the most unimaginative aspects of Scottish nationalism. How long will Scotland be content with its one-dimensional narrative of the righteous David endlessly fighting the bloodthirsty and almighty Goliaths of England? How long will the black and white fight against the Southern authority distract Scotland from exploring the darker inner workings of its own history? In Outlaw King, Chris Pine rallies the conflicted clans in a heartbeat. His questionable claim to the Scottish crown and clan politics are dealt with in no time before the outrageous behaviour of the English unites the nation to the fantasy of a unified and strong Scotland. As a heritage film, Outlaw King is a delight of directorial control and clichés carefully arranged for enjoyable consumption. As anything else, I doubt it achieves much since it shies away from engaging any interesting aspects of Scottish heritage and nationalism.