By John H. Foote
This film, which I saw at TIFF really does deserve a big screen release, which Netflix backed out of. It seems they are also second guessing the promised big screen release of Roma, expected to be a major Oscar player. Needless to say without big screenplay, the Oscars will evaporate. What does this mean for Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman, due next year? Produced by Netflix, even with Scorsese, without big screenplay I cannot imagine the Academy will pay attention.
David Lean could have made Outlaw King, it has the kind of beauty, though much of it is set in the rain-soaked mud of Scotland. The vast green meadows and forests, the rugged shorelines, the raging sea and those beautiful castles that populated Scotland in the 1200’s are on full display here. Director David McKenzie, who directed the outstanding Hell and High Water (2016), has a much larger palette here, and he fills it with the rugged beauty of Scotland.
In the days after the death of William Wallace, the brave Scot who Mel Gibson celebrated in the Academy Award-winning Braveheart (1995), the film depicts part of Wallace being nailed to a post in the town square, fulfilling the wish of the king he be tortured, drawn and quartered, his remains scattered across his homeland. Infuriated by the treatment of his family and friends, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) who fought with Bruce decides to accept the crown of Scotland that is rightfully his, and revolt against the English.
Gathering a meager but fierce army, they are joined by fiery James Douglas (Aaron Taylor Johnson) a young nobleman stripped of his lands, forced to watch his parents murdered before his eyes. Fearless, he dedicates his life to the Bruce and becomes his most ferocious and trusted warrior. Together they march towards the massive British army, knowing they might meet their doom.
Bruce’s wife and child are captured and imprisoned by the English, leaving the young King distracted over thoughts of their safety.
The Bruce proves to be a fine King, fighting alongside his men, digging ditches in the mud beside them, forgiving past insults from Scots who come to join him, and welcoming his men with a fond embrace. He and his young wife, an arranged marriage meant to unite England and Scotland, do a gentle, loving dance around one another, slowly getting to know the other before she finally takes him to her bed. Their love is unquestionable, a powerful force that they will both need for the difficult days ahead.
The battle scenes are ugly, as those in the 1200’s would be. Fought with large metal swords, or axes or spears, rocks, shovels, hammers, and fists it makes for a punishing brutal fight. Limbs are hacked into, if mercy is shown, they are hacked off altogether, heads come off, horses are stabbed sliced open in hopes of felling the riders, and the mud, very quickly runs red with dark blood.
Chris Pine continues to both impress and surprise. I first took note of him long ago on an episode of CSI Miami and kept an eye out for him. A few years after he was perfectly cast as the young James Tiberius Kirk in JJ Abrams Star Trek (2009) reboot, and in Wonder Woman (2017). His superb performance in Hell or High Water (2016) showed the film world his impressive acting chops leading to this. Speaking in a Scottish brogue, quite perfect, he brings a genuine warmth to the character, seeming to work with the attitude he will do anything he asks his men to do. I look forward to seeing him as Bobby Kennedy in an upcoming mini-series.
As the fierce warrior James Douglas, the actor Aaron Taylor Johnson is, as always, outstanding. From Kick-Ass (2010), through Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012) to his Golden Globe-winning performance as a hateful redneck, Johnson is more often than not the best thing in the films he makes. His fine performance as a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (2009) drew attention to his substantial gifts which have been on display since. He is superb as Douglas, seen usually covered in blood and mud, the most loyal of the Bruce’s warriors.
Though a fine film what keeps it from being a great one?
The Screenplay, it neither builds tension nor has the urgency of Braveheart (1995). And it is not that Braveheart (1995) was a great masterpiece because it was not, but Gibson has a way to build sympathy, the man can tell a story.
So can McKenzie, just not on this scale.
For something like this, you need a great director, and McKenzie is not there, not yet.
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.