By John H. Foote
Though made for the streaming company Netflix, Outlaw King, which opened TIFF last night at Roy Thompson Hall deserves to be, no, demands to be seen on a vast movie screen. The better to take in the glorious helicopter shots, the lush greenery of old Scotland, and the superb battle sequences inspired by The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (01-02-03) and HBO’s Games of Thrones. The film is an argument, like Roma, for the streaming naysayers, a bold, huge film that draws upon memories of the best of David Lean without ever quite matching the artistry of his work. Director David McKenzie gave us the sparse, brilliant Hell or High Water (2016) with Chris Pine and Ben Foster, and impresses even more with this massive picture.
The story is that of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), who we know from Braveheart (1995), the Academy Award-winning epic directed by Mel Gibson and starring the actor as William Wallace. According to that film Bruce unwittingly betrayed Wallace leading to his violent death, only to rally his men to attack the British at the conclusion of the film, carrying on Wallace’s fight for freedom. The film picks up pretty much at that moment, with Bruce as the young king of Scotland trying to get from under the foot on English rule. King Edward I (Stephan Dillane) enjoys having Scotland under his thumb and, even more, enjoys the power he has over Bruce, or rather the power he thinks he has, as Bruce gathers his armies for an all-out assault. The Scots continue their battle for their independence from British rule, proudly marching into war against a superior enemy who has just invented the deadly catapult. There is something terribly noble about marching towards certain death for something they believe in, which McKenzie captures with beautiful visual poetry.
His strength as a director up to now has been the performances he draws from his actors. While Ben Foster might got the best reviews, and Jeff Bridges the Oscar nomination, the best work in Hell or High Water was that of Chris Pine as the quiet more thoughtful brother. Here, as Robert the Bruce, he is brilliant, giving the best performance of his career and making clear that he is both movie star and actor. Still best-known to audiences as the young James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, they might think of him differently after this. Brooding, angry, yet fiercely devoted to his men, who he loves likes brothers, Pine creates a fascinating character that I believed men would follow into battle. His blazing blue eyes bring an intensity to the role I didn’t think he would achieve, yet he does, with apparent ease. It is a brave performance, containing full frontal nudity, brave for anyone, male or female, and such an honest portrayal or a king and warrior.
Aaron-Taylor Johnson is outstanding as always as his right-hand man, James Duncan, a grizzled bearded warrior who happily dies for the Bruce if asked to do so. So good in Kick Ass (2010), even better in Nocturnal Animals (2016), Johnson continues to impress as an actor.
The film marks an obvious evolution for McKenzie, moving from intimate drama to massive epic and he pulls it off beautifully. If the Academy is not biased against Netflix films, and we know they will be, this could grab some Oscar attention. It certainly had the full attention of the audience last night.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.