Scottish director David Mackenzie had his greatest success to date with his prior film, Hell or High Water. Now, he returns with Outlaw King. After trading in his beloved Scotland for the hard desert terrain of Texas, Mackenzie has returned to Scotland for this story of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) and his efforts to reclaim Scotland for the Scots beginning in 1306. At first, Robert and the other Scottish nobles kneel before Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), failing to realize his plans for Scotland. Not only did he betray their fathers by agreeing to help them decide who should be King- Robert or John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), who both had familial claims to the throne- only to then appoint himself, but he then brutally killed William Wallace, the lone holdout Scottish noble, and displayed his mangled body for all of Scotland to see. This was not just an attack on the land, but an attack on the Scottish people and it is not something that Robert is willing to let go while he idly watches.
This is a large and bloody film, an area that Mackenzie had yet to explore to this degree before Outlaw King. He is not exploring the power of love as in Perfect Sense, nor the power of brotherly love as in Hell or High Water, nor personal strength as in Starred Up. Rather, he is exploring the love of country and the lengths a man will go in order to defend his home. This love inspires every frame, as Mackenzie tries to capture the beauty of his own home and to capture the inspiration that Robert the Bruce provides every Scotsman due to his willingness to face incredible odds to rescue his country. Robert’s crowning as the King of Scots in direct defiance of Edward I emphasizes this as his coronation includes an extensive mention of all of his forefathers, up to the far removed relative that justifies his claim on the crown. Characters such as James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are driven by a need to defend their homeland and honor their fathers. It is this passion and love that propels the Scots into battle and gives them a leg up on the English.
Mackenzie counters this with his portrayal of Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Hoyle). Hoyle plays the eventual Edward II as a petulant brat, always trying to prove himself as a tough guy to those around him. He claims to be just like his father, except lacking mercy- which he emphasizes by having one of his men disembowel a member of Robert’s family after hanging him- while taking time to reassert his dominance next to his father’s death bed, claiming to be tougher than his father while watching him die. As opposed to the Scots, Edward- and by extension the English- is not driven by honor. He is driven by his own ego. It is this hubris that leads him into conflict with the Scots, as he tries to prove just how tough he truly is, only to be handed an embarrassing defeat in which even the land itself is used as a weapon against the larger English forces.
This emotion and thematic contrast anchors the film, keeping it grounded even as Mackenzie’s film attempts the sweeping scope of a classic epic. That scope is still felt from beginning to end, however, especially in the cinematography. Taking full advantage of the pristine attention to detail in the costume design and the sets, DP Barry Ackroyd uses striking aerial shots of battle or of troops moving to give the film the requisite scale it needs. The incredibly impressive opening long take highlights the skill of Mackenzie and Ackroyd in framing and staging shots, as each character or element moves with absolute precision. The camera frequently spins about in this opening scene before landing on a catapult launching a projectile at the last then-standing Scottish stronghold of Stirling, a brilliant gut punch for the remaining Scottish lords, all while Mackenzie and Ackroyd set the stage for the rest of the film.
Ackroyd’s camera does not just flourish in these more indulgent and daring scenes, but also in more intimate ones, such as the terrific close-up on Robert as he sees the chaos unfolding around him as he learns of the death of William Wallace. This claustrophobic and chaotic shot emphasizes the confusion Robert feels in the moment. The use of firelight or candlelight to illuminate scenes is consistently striking, especially when balanced with the blueish tint of the available lighting. No matter any of its faults as a film, the cinematography of Outlaw King consistently proves to be its strongest element. The mastery of lighting, framing, and the film’s ability to bring the Scottish terrain to life thoroughly defines this film’s appearance and lends it considerable stylistic flair.
Nonetheless, there are flaws, namely the lack of narrative cohesion. This is a two-hour film that feels as though it needs more. The reported scenes edited out of the festival cut of Outlaw King would not help this, as this is not a film that would have benefited from the additional action scenes Mackenzie left on the cutting room floor. Rather, it required more balance. Much of the action that remains in the film is reserved for the second half, while the dramatic scenes dominate the first half. Both sections suffer from rather scattershot editing that finds scenes ending too early, smashing into one another, or simply moving too fast. It becomes quite the whirlwind to watch, even if both halves have their merits.
The drama in the first half is powerful and emotionally stirring. There is considerable depth in the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), even if their marriage was arranged by Edward I. The chemistry of Pine and Pugh together is tremendous. The battles of the second half are gorgeous, wonderfully composed and choreographed while taking full advantage of Ackroyd’s lighting ability. However, no matter how emotional and thrilling it becomes, Outlaw King’s two halves do not work together. The drama feels unfinished by the film’s end, rushed to completion and left half-baked. The action feels interrupted, unceremoniously ending its exploration of Robert’s decision to turn to guerilla warfare.
Outlaw King has every element in place to become a brilliant modern epic, but it never gives itself room to breathe. Thus, to make it more easily digestible, instead of retaining the epic sweep that Mackenzie seems to aim for in the beginning, he settles for cheap drama. The political strife of the first half is abandoned, instead setting up a damsel-in-distress subplot that, even if factual, Robert seems to momentarily forget except for whenever it becomes convenient to the plot. The unique guerilla warfare of the second half gives way to a more traditional battle between the Scots and English, ultimately leading to an entirely fictional showdown between Robert and Edward II. The moment gives a rousing and triumphant send-off for Robert, in spite of the fact his war was nowhere near over by the film’s end and Edward II was far from defeated.
Though flawed and a let down after the brilliance of Starred Up and Hell or High Water, Outlaw King still shows signs of David Mackenzie’s considerable talent. It is a film that just exceeded his grasp, struggling to balance the high-octane, epic scale of the battles with his typically more intimate action and character-driven work. There is a lot to love here, whether in the cinematography, action set-pieces, or the acting, but the rushed editing, conflicted tone, and general lack of cohesion holds the film back from becoming a rousing success.