Outlaw King (David Mackenzie, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
Despite the copious online coverage of the mid-film reveal of star Chris Pine’s genitalia in all its naked glory (don’t get too excited, as it’s only up there for a nanosecond), the new Netflix film Outlaw King, from director David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water), offers far more than titillating glimpses of actor’s bare bodies. It is, instead, a somber – and very violent – depiction of the Scottish rebellion of the early 14th century, led by Robert the Bruce, that kicked out the ruling English after their earlier defeat of William Wallace. Think of this as a sequel of sorts, then, to the 1995 Braveheart. This time, however, the cinematic good guys win (sorry, no such thing as a plot spoiler when the story is based on real events).
We open in the aftermath of the English victory over, and execution of, Wallace. King Edward I – a very good Stephen Dillane (Fugitive Pieces) – sits on his new throne, pitched in a battlefield tent, and accepts the fealty of the humbled Scottish nobility, assigning duties and lands at will (the divide part of “divide and conquer”). All appears calm enough, though we watch as Edward launches one remaining missile, via catapult, into the last resisting castle, his new subjects standing passively by. What can they do? They have lost, and he is their new king.
Pine (Wonder Woman) plays young Robert the Bruce (also just “Robert Bruce”), son of the elder Robert the Bruce (it’s a long line). His family is granted partial dominion over Scotland, subject to Edward’s oversight. As a token of respect, Edward even sends his goddaughter Elizabeth (Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth) to Robert (the younger) as a bride. It’s a gift no man can refuse who wishes to keep the peace, though Robert, a father and grieving widower, seems less than thrilled. Still, they will eventually bond and forge an important marital alliance (for the record, Ms. Pugh also strips down in the couple’s obligatory lovemaking scene, though that seems to excite the internauts less than Pine’s own nudity).
So far, so good, but then the English decide to parade William Wallace’s mutilated corpse around, and all hell breaks loose. Soon, his own father dead from natural causes and the locals expecting him to lead, Robert takes charge of a nascent rebellion. It does not go well, at first, the English army’s greater numbers and better organization a major asset. But the hardy Scots find innovative ways to fight back, including tricky guerilla (long before the term was coined) tactics that play off their home-court advantage, and at a place called Loudon Hill finally deliver a stinging defeat to their would-be overlords. Game. Set. Match. Go Bruce! Though, to be fair, it was actually the later Battle of Bannockburn that truly liberated the Scottish.
Pine is fine, if a bit stolid. Pugh offers a little more emotional range but has less to do. The supporting ensemble grunts and trills in a variety of Scottish accents that lend a proper air of verisimilitude to the affair. Billy Howle (On Chesil Beach), as Edward II, the heir apparent and psychopathic antagonist, is a bit much, virtually drooling as he chomps at the bit to destroy all Scots who resist. Overall, the film is engaging enough, though viewers beware that entrails are spilled and much blood besides. A word of additional caution: the history is muddled, as it usually is in such affairs, so avoid too much looking up of the facts if you want to savor the narrative. Then again, what is the internet for, if not for that (and for commenting on Chris Pine’s penis)? Ah dinnae ken …