When Outlaw King premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, it was much longer than its current two-hour runtime. Director David Mackenzie had to edit the film after much criticism of its length following its premiere at TIFF. I’m not sure how the original film played out, but the edit, which shaved off roughly 20 minutes, doesn’t exactly help the film. It’s still long, doesn’t focus long enough on Robert the Bruce, and is sluggishly paced. The film is akin to Braveheart, but its similarities don’t just seem to stop at the both of them being war movies in which the Scottish try and fight for independence from England: Robert the Bruce is William Wallace’s brother, who is played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Still, this connection isn’t truly relevant to the film and Outlaw King never rises above its own mediocrity.
After eight years of fighting against the English, the Scottish are finally forced to surrender to King Edward I (Stephen Delane), who has instilled fear in them, taken over their lands, and bound the most noble families to him through marriage–in a political move, he marries Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), daughter of Richard de Burgh (Jonny Phillips), to Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine). Robert, in his attempts to unite the Scottish people under the crown, is named king despite the naysayers and those who don’t believe he has a right to the throne. The church backs him in exchange of him backing the church.
And so Robert, who is generally overpowered and outnumbered by the English army, spends most of his time rallying his men–made up of disgraced family names by the king, the biggest one being James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)–who, in turn, rally others in their hopes of claiming independence from England’s rule. Meanwhile, King Edward’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), is obsessed with proving his worth to his father (and constantly failing at every turn). He’s tasked with hunting down and killing Robert. Edward has one of the more fleshed out arcs in the film. He’s fueled by personal hatred of Robert and the Scottish people, all while trying to please his father, who doesn’t believe his son is capable of leading armies. He comes at everything with more brutality, cruelty, and a very large ego.
The film, directed by David Mackenzie and co-written by him, Bathsheba Doran, and James MacInnes, doesn’t provide much insight into Robert the Bruce as a person. It’s far more concerned with the facts (though it cuts some prolonged events, like Elizabeth’s house arrest, short), which you can read online or in a history book. This makes the film sluggish and boring, completely devoid of any rich storytelling. From the beginning to end, Outlaw King is too methodical, by-the-book, and doesn’t have its own distinguished personality.
Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, and the rest of the cast do good work, but the writing doesn’t give them much to work with. Pine and Pugh have solid chemistry and do wonders with the looks they give each other. While the romance aspect is sweet and the budding relationship between Robert and Elizabeth is one of the better subplots, the film fails to expand on it, as well as on Elizabeth’s loyalty to Robert. Instead of returning to her parents’ home, she refuses to annul her marriage when given the chance and this could’ve served as an intriguing side story had the film focused long enough on it. On a side note, Pine going full frontal during the bathing scene, which has been much discussed among media outlets, is very, very exaggerated and isn’t anything to discuss at all. It’s more like the media is just unaccustomed to seeing male nudity in films as females are much more often naked onscreen.
Ultimately, Outlaw King is wholeheartedly a war epic. There’s a lot of fighting and a lot of bloodshed. The battles are well-executed and there are good reasons for why Robert the Bruce wants to wage war against King Edward. However, for every single intriguing battle, there isn’t all that much else to make it truly engaging or powerful. There aren’t any standout scenes, no well-paced escalation of tension, and not much in terms of character development. Shockingly, there aren’t even any memorable speeches. The fight scenes are well done and anyone who’s into sword-fighting and one-on-one combat will greatly enjoy them, bloody as they may be, but Outlaw King struggles with commanding attention and doesn’t leave much of a lasting impact after the credits begin to roll.
Outlaw King struggles with commanding attention and doesn’t leave much of a lasting impact after the credits begin to roll.