Outlaw King: Netflix’s historical epic is lean, mean and up for it
Ivan Radford | On 07, Nov 2018
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Stephen Dillane, Tony Curran
Watch Outlaw King online in the UK: Netflix UK
Braveheart’s shadow looms long over Scottish history in cinema: it’s taken until 2018 to get a big-budget epic about Robert the Bruce, another of the country’s most famous warriors. It’s telling that even in Outlaw King, David Mackenzie’s biopic of the national hero, William Wallace does make an appearance – but in a decidedly different style to Mel Gibson’s Oscar winner. That cameo sets the tone for this violent, bloody retelling of the First War of Scottish Independence, uniting heft and history to gruelling, gripping effect.
Chris Pine plays King Robert, a casting that would suggest a certain Hollywoodising of events, but with Mackenzie at the helm, there’s no risk of that: this is a grounded, gritty affair that gets into the marshy mud with its characters, surrounding them with rugged hills, folk songs sung while navigating them, and impressively authentic rituals for weddings, coronations and more – most of them all taking place in the opening 30 minutes. If that sounds like a slow start, though, Outlaw King makes it clear what to expect with its very opening shot: a quietly staggering single tale that takes us from Robert on humiliated bent knee to a macho duel, followed by a trebuchet fire-bombing a castle on the horizon. Scale and confidence aren’t in short supply here – no matter what you’ve heard about the hasty re-cutting of the movie after its lukewarm premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, this sprawling epic in its final form feels lean, mean and up for it.
After Starred Up and Hell or High Water, there’s no doubting Mackenzie’s knack for bringing masculine conflict to the big screen, and he’s a perfect fit for this material – a grand slice of history that pits national honour head to head against individual pride, loyalty against selfishness, and people against barbaric rule. This is a man’s medieval world, where the villain – the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle, unrecognisable after his equally stellar turns in On Chesil Beach and The Witness for the Prosecution) – is an entitled daddy’s boy who childishly tries to prove his worth in ways that are as laughable as they are dangerous. Howle’s manic weakling is contrasted superbly by the roaring rage of Aaron Taylor-Johnson (also unrecognisable) as Bruce’s number two, James Douglas, whose quest to redeem his family name carries a heartfelt sincerity that’s rooted in his community not himself.
At the heart of it all, Chris Pine is fantastic, proving his A-list credentials with a charismatic lead turn that’s so understated you don’t notice his highly convincing Scottish accent – it’s another part (ahem) of his performance that has been stirring up news headlines. It would be easy for Outlaw King to cruise along its noble rails without probing its hero’s motivations, but Pine brings a depth and gravitas to the role of the righteous rebel; he’s as disturbed as anyone else that he has to kill an opponent in a church to get his campaign rolling, just as he’s aware of the lives at stake by his about-turn after swearing fealty to England’s king. He’s supported by equally impressive turns from Tony Curran as Angus Macdonald and the always-excellent Florence Pugh as his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh. The script (credited to five writers) tries to give Elizabeth some agency and substance, but it’s Pugh who does the leg work to make the best of her role, bringing some genuine catharsis to a final scene in what is otherwise a hard-hitting ride.
Because, after all, swords and shields are the primary currency of the medieval actioner, and Outlaw King doesn’t skimp on either. With Netflix’s backing, this could have been a Lord of the Rings-style affair, but the film works because it chooses to keep things down and dirty, shirking cliches to focus on battle scenes that use Scotland’s natural backdrop as a thrilling weapon in its own right. This is cracking, testosterone-fuelled cinema.
Outlaw King is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.