Outlaw King (2018)
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriters: Bathsheba Doran, David Mackenzie, James MacInnes
Starring: Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stephen Dillane, Billy Howle
Critically acclaimed Starred Up and Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie has made the transition to Netflix for his latest picture Outlaw King, the tale of Scottish King Robert the Bruce’s exploits in war against the oppressive English – a sort of Braveheart pseudo-sequel if you will.
Beginning quite literally in the moments after William Wallace’s capture, Outlaw King leans heavily on the myth most popularly recognised on film in Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie, acting under the assumption that if you have not yet seen Gibson’s film, you at least know enough about the myth of William Wallace to gather some semblance of understanding regarding Scotland’s troubles in the shadows of the English at the time (the 14th century).
In-keeping with its 20-plus year old brother is the level of violence on offer in Outlaw King, though unlike Gibson’s all-out epic that brought death and destruction in the very first act, Outlaw King instead works much like Mackenzie’s previous picture Hell or High Water to build tension throughout the piece, using it as an undercurrent to the narrative and bringing with it increasingly troubling moments that build to a rather satisfying conclusion.
Outlaw King undoubtedly has a lot in common with the so-called “epics” of a by-gone era – sequences filled with extras clad in era-specific costumes, grand shots of the landscapes, impressive and expensive sets, and the ever-expected blood-filled battles – but it brings all of these as set dressing to what is a project more individual in its nature and motivations; a picture about an honourable man left with no option other than to take a stand.
In this respect, the film felt a little loose, with some narrative threads seeming methodical and composed while others were presented as if quick-fire snippets tagged on to pay homage to the actual figures of the time (the phrase I’m coining being “the Peterloo Effect”), the result being a film that maintained a solid level of suspense and an almost unnerving sense of dread but offered simply too many moments to characters not previously established, their battles and even their brutal murders having less significance to the story than they may have otherwise done with a little extra development.
Courtesy of this flip-flopping attitude to the side-kin of the Scottish hero at the centre of the piece, the plot heaps all of its focus onto Robert the Bruce in particular, with Chris Pine given a lot of room to exercise his acting talents, succeeding with aplomb in transforming himself into the role without ever presenting anything more than we have already seen. The actor, by far the most recognisable talent in the film, provides an unnoticeable Scottish accent (the biggest compliment for anyone adopting such specific tones – something co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson could have had a lot of help with) and is a reasonable love interest to Florence Pugh’s Elizabeth, but like many of Pine’s roles in the height of his career, it seems that he is most at home in matters of the heart as opposed to deeper grief and/or rage, which does sell the character a little short in this particular feature. Admittedly, crowd-pleasing shots of him draped in some hot springs in the highlands, penis fully on show, do their bit to remove you from the story, pointing almost literally at the character and shouting “Chris Pine has his dick out!” – clearly this doesn’t help to become engrossed in his journey.
This problem is one that actually plagues the film in other respects too, and with seemingly no reason. Outlaw King is admirable in its attempts to bring back the epic historical tales of old, but its tense and ultimately brutal tale is riddled by moments of slapstick comedy (both on the screen and in the edit) or blatant fan service that cheapen everything the filmmakers are looking to build. In one particular sequence, Robert the Bruce and company ride their horses into town ahead of a brief engagement that shall prove vital to the upcoming war, yet the scene is opened on a couple having sex by the open gates to the stronghold, their acts possibly being era-specific but completely off-message as regards the film’s themes and overarching tone, with a further scene between married servants of the king playing off as if the start of a comic relief pair whose story goes nowhere.
Visually Outlaw King is phenomenal however, the work of regular Paul Greengrass (the Bourne franchise; Captain Phillips) and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker; Detroit) cinematographer Barry Ackroyd elevating the picture to something close to a Western in terms of its size and scope, some sequences holding the action for abnormally long takes, the work of the camera maintaining engagement and working to satisfy those who love to indulge in beautiful camera work. It is at first a style that is striking and noticeable – a shot in the opening sequence lasting for more than a minute as it follows members of the cast in and out of tents at a gathering – but is then quickly dissolved into the very nature of the picture, its immense size and scope coming to define the “epic” in this historical epic; providing a most cinematic of streaming experiences.
By the same token, the score by Jim Sutherland and Tony Doogan was entirely encapsulating of all you’d expect of a modern historical epic, though their take on this film was less grandiose and much less patriotic than the work of James Horner on Braveheart, the pair instead focusing on the darker elements at play in the picture in a way that only served the scope of the visuals on offer and the brutality of the action – the music coming to further reinforce the very best of what this picture had to offer; that being a grand scope and deftly sinister underbelly to a tale of brutality and questionable triumph.
David Mackenzie didn’t quite strike on every level with this film like he did on Hell or High Water, but what came of Outlaw King remains a historical epic to remember – one that can satisfy visually and in terms of its brutality; a picture that may not reach the heights of the best of its contemporary brethren such as Braveheart and Gladiator but certainly earns its spot just beneath them in the pantheon of films about such historic events.
Not everybody is going to like this, with the pace perhaps being counteractive to the interest of the genre’s most hardcore fans and the genre itself being off-putting to more casual viewers given less fruitful ventures in recent years, but this slow-burning piece ensures you feel at least something by the very end and offers way more visually than we have become used to with the CG-filled high-budget fare of modern times; Outlaw King feeling like the first true, less computer generated epic of Netflix’s original catalogue.
We haven’t seen a film of this genre pulled off this well for way over a decade, so praise ye to Netflix for finally offering a semblance of what their budgets seem to promise – an epic in almost every sense of the word, albeit flawed and at times lacking in focus.