(This review contains mild spoilers.)
OUTLAW KING challenges the definition of what it is means to be “based on historical events.” The film, which stars Chris Pine and is directed by David Mackenzie, begins in medias res. Robert the Bruce, one of Scotland remaining lords after William Wallace’s failed rebellion, has sworn fealty to the king, Edward I of England.
It’s not a loyalty that lasts- but this conflict doesn’t escalate in a traditional way. Instead of having a series of cause-and-effect style events, the events run parallel to each other. In fact, many things in this film occur simultaneously. Characters speak at the same as other characters, obscuring the dialogue the way conversations actually happen in real time. Spoken words and language are part of this major departure from the familiar atmosphere in which a character utters a line already anticipated by the audience. There’s no anticipating much of anything, and surprise is an element that Mackenzie utilizes with little fanfare- making it all the more effective.
Examining Robert the Bruce’s rise to power and kingship means casting all notion of Braveheart aside. While there’s plenty of mention of Wallace in this film, he’s not an active character, and the story centers itself well on Bruce and those who are connected to him by proxy.
Violence abounds in Outlaw King, with many characters being killed so quickly there’s no time to mourn them. Because there’s so little anticipation, characters are often murdered or mutilated in a way that forces the viewer to come to grips with what “independence” means to these 14th century Scotsmen. Aaron Taylor-Johnson does this well with James Douglas, who joins Bruce after his lands and name have been taken from him. Douglas becomes an unstoppable force on the battlefield, striking down his enemies in a way that words have failed to do.
Love also takes a stand, with Florence Pugh shining as the fierce Elizabeth de Burgh. The films takes a few liberties with her relationship to Robert, this gives Pugh room to give agency to Elizabeth in a way that has always not been afforded to women in history.
The surrounding environment plays a role in setting up Bruce’s victories and failures. Mackenzie keeps the viewers on their toes by silently begging the question: what isn’t being shown in the frame right now? (He also does this in Hell or High Water.) Constantly rotating scenery causes mistrust in what is being shown and creates suspense without overzealous music or other such dramedy.
Scotland’s beauty is breathtaking, and there’s plenty of it to see throughout the film. Landscape, weather and architecture also work to tell the story with words. There’s a scene where a rainbow shines just before a minor victory, but it’s hardly noteworthy and requires close attention. A great portion of the film takes place in the mud, and for a minute it does seem like these men are fighting over a place in the dirt. Who can come away less broken and/or bloodied than the other? Of course, the answer is: no one. Absolutely no one escapes this film unscathed. There are well-established villains, but there are no “bad guys.” Murders occur, sanctuaries are violated, promises are broken, and yes, even the innocents are imperiled.
War takes no sides. It will not be lost on the keen observer that many of these events mirror what we see happening in our world to today; what has happened for centuries; what will surely happen again. In this manner, Outlaw King becomes less of mere biopic, and more of a contemplation on what it means to struggle for power.
As Robert the Bruce is gaining (and losing) power, so are others around him. Those who lose power by helping him may see it return. Some who gain power by turning on him lose power. The balance/imbalance of power is most evident in the struggle between the king of England (Stephen Dillane) and his son, Prince Edward (Billy Howle). Prince Edward behaves in a manner similar to a certain bratty king from Game of Thrones, except more understated. Where Pine depicts Bruce’s full range of emotions (and intentions) in his face, Dillane keeps Edward’s face blank making him harder to pin down. What does he want? Why is his relationship with his father so strained? No hard and fast answers to these questions appear, and this might be a point of contention for some. Motivations may be obvious, or they may not be. Eventually, Edward shows his true face- but it’s never really clear why he is that way. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
Outlaw King doesn’t bore. It’s constantly moving, with quiet moments sprinkled throughout. But it’s not so speedy as to leave nothing of substance behind. I disagree with reviewers who say they were left wanting- having seen the gory details, I am satisfied to leave the rest in history.
At the same time, it does still provide the familiar trappings of the period piece: well-done costumes, carefully trained accents, and music befitting the time (no electric guitars here). The film inspires tears, anger, laughter, and confusion. I’ll be honest… the infamous nude scene is actually quite awkward, because Mackenzie doesn’t allow for any one mindset to sink in for too long. Because of this there are a few transitions that are jarring to experience, but keep the film compelling nonetheless.
A questionable man who would be king makes questionable choices. Who are we to question what we can only see through the lens of history? Or isn’t that what we’re always doing anyway? Historical events portrayed in Outlaw King flip the script about how we make meaning of history in the first place.