Netflix’s OUTLAW KING is a thin but strong historical film about Robert the Bruce and his fight for an independent Scotland after the death of rebel William Wallace. It has a lot of great elements and one of the most realistic scenes of medieval combat I’ve caught on screen, but they all come together in broad brush strokes and without a moral center. Overall, I enjoyed it but couldn’t help thinking it could have been much more if they’d had more screen time, maybe done it as a miniseries.
The film begins with King Edward (Stephen Dillane, one of my favorite actors) receiving fealty from the Scottish lords in his tent after eight years of war that ended with William Wallace’s defeat. It all started when the Scottish king died without an heir, resulting in civil war and the nobles asking Edward to mediate the succession and Edward saying, “I think I’ll just take the crown myself.” After William Wallace is executed, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) becomes inspired to resume the war, winning the crown and Scottish independence.
The acting is top-notch, led by Chris Pine, who seems determined to play his more serious roles in a very understated way as if to downplay his looks and charisma. There’s an engaging love story in a marriage Edward arranges between Robert and his goddaughter, Elizabeth (the excellent Florence Pugh), which stems from consent and equality. As to the story itself, it’s fairly accurate historically, and that’s where things get tricky.
With BRAVEHEART, hardly any of it is historical, and what we’re given is caricaturish and over the top, but it has a very strong moral center, and we know the protagonist and his motivations very well, and we root for him. With OUTLAW KING, Robert is morally really no better than Edward, and the war seems to be about whether the Scots should pay taxes and military service to a Scottish rather than an English king. This is refreshing after hearing Mel Gibson’s Wallace yelling about freedom in the Middle Ages, but Gibson did give us a real and strong foundation on which to root for the hero aside from mere point of view. In OUTLAW KING, the war starts because the people are simply open to one in the wake of Wallace’s death, and Robert’s first attempt to unite the country behind him as king ends with him murdering a rival on hallowed ground. This is good stuff as I love the accuracy, but it would have have been nice to see Robert’s motivation go beyond naked ambition, and Pine is so understated that the only real glimpse we get into his character is through his relationship with Elizabeth, which ends up largely wasted when war erupts.
The movie ends with a battle as well done as the Battle of the Bastards in GAME OF THRONES, which is pretty amazing to watch, but the denouement falls flat. At this point, I was still feeling like I was missing something, that I’d liked what I’d seen but wanted more. If the film had been longer, or maybe even a miniseries, we could have seen more of what Robert wanted to do for his people as king, why he wanted to be king, his relationship with his very strong wife, and so on. For me, that would elevated the film from good to something truly special.
So overall, I liked OUTLAW KING a lot and considered it a rare gem for sticking with historical accuracy, but I wish the director had done more to flesh out the historical characters as people we could relate to and really root for.