Outlaw King Review

Culture is the celebration of diversity. Let us therefore not deny our origin, but instead celebrate ours as a cultural mosaic; not a tower of Babel, but a power of Babel.
Ali A. Mazrui, Cultural Forces in World Politics

It’s extremely easy to be cynical about Outlaw King if you’re not interested in Scottish History. Legend has it that its entire existence owes itself to Netflix’s desire to have a Netflix original film show up in searches for “Braveheart” on their programming. Alternatively, it is part of Netflix’s ongoing war against the traditional film industry, which casts many professional film reviewers’ takes on the film in a rather unflattering light.

I trust neither film critics nor Rotten Tomatoes at the best of times, but it’s telling audiences seem to like Outlaw King more than the professional film crickets.


The Steps to the Empty Throne

I’m really glad I never became a professional film critic. I loved film analysis at school: studying choices of cut, framing, score, sound and production design, the lot. Yet the vast majority of “film criticism” isn’t anything of the sort: for all too many, it’s painfully obvious that they’re not interested in the craft or the art, but hobnobbing with their pretentious buddies, sipping wines at film premieres, and liberally sprinkling filmmakers’ names in their articles, hoping that a smattering of sweetcorn in the ordure will fool folk into thinking they concocted a meal. There are undoubtedly genuine critics out there, of course, but in this internet age when anyone and their dog can be a film cricket, finding them is like rummaging in the DVD box at a charity shop.

For my money, there’s a lot to like about Outlaw King. Chris Pine was was very good as Robert, if a bit saintly for this point in his life: he needed a more ruthless, dangerous edge to him. Nonetheless, can’t complain about his accent, and I really appreciate the gravitas he imbued. Probably the best I’ve ever seen Chris Pine in. Florence Pugh’s Elizabeth was exactly what you’d expect an Irish-raised English lass to be like. James Cosmo was pitch-perfect for the Elder Robert, such a shame his role was so brief. Black Douglas was not what I imagined, but I enjoyed Aaron’s performance very much, functioning as something like Stephen the Irishman (except Douglas, well, existed). Glad to see him get a bit of a chance to shine with his story too. Angus was grand, particularly happy seeing him swinging what looked like a Lochaber Axe, as well as a peek at Islander communities. Good that they were much more Celtic than the Normanised lalland Scots depicted elsewhere. Aymer de Valence was ace, total English hard man.

There are so many wee bits and pieces of history that I was geeking out over. The Warwolf! Raise Dragon! Oath of the Swans! Hey Tutti Tattie! The Douglas Larder! Schiltrons! Accurate Medieval Weapons and Armour! All these things finally on screen for the first time, and the knowledge that some people will be watching, thinking “what was that all about?” “Was that a real thing?” “Did that really happen?” “Who are they, what’s their story?”

Countess Isabella Macduff and Bishop Robert Wishart both deserve greater exploration for their roles in the struggle to preserve Scotland’s independence.

There’s also a lot I didn’t like as much. You can definitely tell about 40 minutes has been cut: if you don’t know Scottish history a lot of meaning might be lost. Characters of immense importance to the cause – Isabella of Buchan (Kim Allan), Robert Wishart (Ron Donachie), Simon Fraser (Benny Young) – are given a few lines at most, and it’s hard to think how it could be any other way given how much the filmmakers crammed into the film. Indeed, I’d argue Macduff and Wishart were even more important for the fact that they weren’t knights or warriors: their battlefields were legal and spiritual, but no less fierce and essential to the fight, even if they aren’t as straightforwardly cinematic as a bit scrap with spears & shields.

Stephen Dillane’s Edward I just didn’t sit right with me: a man known for his thunderous temper and overpowering presence was weirdly subdued in this film, perhaps unconsciously counteracting Brian Blessed & Patrick McGoohan’s more charismatic performances? Or maybe they just said “do Stannis” and left it at that. (He’s great as Stannis Baratheon, but Edward I was not Stannis Baratheon).

Similarly, I get why they went the way they did with the Red Comyn’s death, but it did seem a bit too much like an exoneration on Robert’s part: I think it would’ve been more powerful if it was a gradually mounting heated argument which ended in bloodshed. Despite what Fiona McLeod might think, I don’t think it was as simple as cold, calculating murder either: even the dimmest wit in the Middle Ages would know that murder in a church would be destructive to your reputation, your honour, and your very immortal soul. Religion in the Middle Ages was an incredibly big deal, and I simply cannot see Robert – or anyone – doing it with a cool head. It’s also a shame to see the Red Comyn, a man who fought and strived for Scotland as strongly as many other nobles, depicted rather flatly as a villain.

There are wee bits and pieces slightly altered from the historical record. I’m not sure why they altered the circumstances at Methven, for instance: originally Aymer was safe in the castle & Robert challenged him to come out & fight on the field: Aymer declined, saying it was too late in the day for a battle. Robert retired to his camp, then Aymer assaulted it anyway. The breaking of chivalry was already there, justified in Aymer’s eyes. They also have Edward I die before his time (again), this time before Loudoun Hill. At least it’s a bit more time than he got in Braveheart.

Still, these are fairly small quibbles compared to what the film does well. McKenzie is clearly a filmmaker’s filmmaker, for so much of the film is imbued with motifs and homages to masters of the craft. If your film has a cavalry charge, then you almost certainly owe a debt to Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky: the ride of the Teutonic Order against the doughty men of Novgorod to Prokofief’s thundering score is one of the most gripping and powerful pieces of Medieval cinema ever filmed. The unease as the two armies gaze at each other across the ice; the mounting tension as the Ritterbrüder approach; the accelerating panic of the infantry as of one of the most terrifying forces of the Middle Ages shakes the earth in their advance. (Jings, I get a wee chill just thinking about it.)

Naturally, the Battle of Loudoun Hill in Outlaw King will most likely be compared to its (historical and cinematic) predecessor, the Battle of Stirling (sans Bridge) in Braveheart. While more historically accurate – which, let’s face it, isn’t difficult – I think Loudoun Hill also manages to equal Stirling in violence and cinematic scope, with the added poignancy of Angus Og appearing to suffer the mother of all post-battle come-downs. The shot of the Flower of English Chivalry rampaging towards the camera is one of my favourite in the film. Alas, Loudoun Hill is also the location of one of my biggest issues with the film: the Prince of Wales’ presence. Quite apart from its ahistoricity (Edward was still in England at this point), what happened next stretched credulity to me, and seemed very much contrived for the sake of drama. It really was the only part of the film that I felt very annoyed at – and considering how good the rest of it is, that’s something of a miracle.

You can see echoes of all sorts of classic films, not just the obvious Medievally-inspired ones, but even the likes of Touch of Evil in the much-discussed opening long take, a bit of the Sergio Leone western in Robert’s tense confrontations with the MacDougall and McKinnon chieftains, and the brutal and uncompromising gore of an Akira Kurosawa feudal epic for good measure. (See, I can namedrop too!) McKenzie manages to do this without drawing undue attention: you’re aware of it, but it has the plausible deniability of coincidence. Not the fourth-wall-breaking sideways glance, but perhaps the meaningful pause in the action.

Even the depiction of Edward, Prince of Wales (soon to be Edward II) owes a great debt to historical cinema which came before. The bowlcut in particular suggests a homage to that most celebrated theatrical warrior-king, Henry V, as so legendarily depicted in the adaptations of Shakespeare’s play by Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branaugh. What better way to signpost the opposition of the younger Edward, so darkened by the oppressive shadow of his overwhelming father, than to evoke the imagery of one of the most iconic fighting monarchs in western culture? That Henry V was born & reigned a full century after Edward II does not matter: it’s the imagery which does. And Billy Howle’s Edward is the dark reflection of one of England’s most beloved kings – complete with Goatee Of Evil!

As an aside, one of my favourite “blink and you miss it” moments takes place at Berwick. For a brief half-second, you can see three black musicians amongst the marketplace. “What, black people in Scotland? What is this PC nonsense?” Yet black Scots there were, well-attested in history as well as genetics. The fact that these individuals were musicians suggests to me an oblique reference to the “Black Moors” (as distinct from, well, just Moors) in the court of James IV. We are reasonably sure that Africans came to these isles since at least the Roman Empire, and possibly even earlier. Berwick was one of four major trade hubs (alongside Aberdeen, Perth, and Edinburgh) in Scotland since at least the 11th and 12th centuries:

The same number as England, oddly enough.

It’s not outside the realms of possibility that a few musicians from Mali, Makuria, Kanem, Daju, Alodia, or the Gao Empire could have found their way to Scotland on their travels via the Low Countries, or indirectly through Southampton, London, or York. Whatever the filmmaker’s reasoning, it was a cool reference to the idea that Scotland in the Middle Ages was more than just an isolated, cold northland on the edge of the European World.

The Point of It

The light beer equivalent of Braveheart, David Mackenzie’s competent, but relatively pointless epic…
Andrew Parker

These uprising event films (The Patriot, Kingdom of Heaven, Rob Roy, Spartacus) are a little dime-a-dozen. They can blur together.
Blake Goble

Between GoT and Braveheart, there’s little new Outlaw King can bring to the table, whether in politics or action.
Clint Worthington

As a Scot deeply interested in Scotland’s history, it’s immensely dispiriting to see so much discussion of Outlaw King reduced to several common themes:

  • Is it a sequel to Braveheart?
  • Is it better/worse than Braveheart?
  • Is it more historically accurate than Braveheart?
  • Is William Wallace in it?

Too often the reviewers had an obvious bone to pick regarding the film’s producers threatening to upset the traditional cinema industry, and take great relish in pointing out that we’ve seen this story before, even when we literally have not. In the hundred plus years since the medium was invented, the story of Robert the Bruce has never been told.

The care and intricacy of the film’s styling carried a heavy price tag, with Marvel committing more money to Black Panther than its previous few films in order to achieve a visual splendor that’s as exciting to the culture as it is to the eye. The result is the sort of spectacle black moviegoers rarely get to see in popular mainstream culture. That isn’t lost on Marvel’s Kevin Feige, who explained his reasoning behind the film’s budget to Vulture: “It’s a big story that deserves to be told in a big way, for all of the cultural and political reasons that people talk about.”

These vague “cultural and political reasons” are at the heart of a movie phenomenon that’s inspired everything from Black Panther-themed watch parties to a voter registration initiative to a curriculum that encourages educators to leverage the film to teach deeper histories about African culture, politics, and history. It’s also opened up dialogues and personal reflections about black identity in America and abroad via #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe, a powerful cross section of editorial and real-time reflections on the film’s resonance with black moviegoers.

Tre Johnson

I had a particularly blessed experience watching Black Panther with two family members: one was born in Kenya, with a daughter born in Scotland. Although I enjoyed the film greatly, I particularly wanted to go with them, because as African Scots, they have a unique perspective on our country and world. Every time I looked across to them, they had the widest smiles on their faces. They laughed and cried and cheered every time Wakanda came on screen. Wakanda may be fictional, but it is nonetheless a fond tribute to Africa in all its variety and wonder. Since Black Panther, I wanted a film that made me feel that way. A sense of the celebration of home.

One of the best moments for me in the blockbusting Avengers: Infinity War is one of the quieter scenes. Vision and Scarlet Witch are in Scotland… and Scotland’s name is up there on screen. Not “United Kingdom.” Not “Great Britain.” Scotland. It would’ve been easy for Marvel Studios to just put the UK, or even locate it in some other European country, letting Edinburgh stand in for somewhere else – but they didn’t. Scotland featured in a tentpole summer blockbuster, which has gone on to be one of the highest-grossing films in history. It’s one thing to appear in a film made in Scotland, but it’s the sweetest validation to see Scotland in an international blockbuster like this.

Braveheart was like that for many folk, and I too think highly of that film. But there are many people who don’t like Mel Gibson’s epic, and for all its many qualities, Braveheart is ultimately a film about Scots, but not by Scots. The director & star was Australian; the producers were Australian and American; the award-nominated script was written by an American; the award-winning score, cinematography, & makeup were by Americans and Britons; as mentioned before, a significant proportion of the film was filmed in Ireland. Outlaw King’s director is a Scot who learned his trade in Dundee; the co-founder of Sigma Films and one of the many producers of the film is from Glasgow; at least two of the five(!) screenwriters (including McKenzie) are Scottish; the orchestral music producer is Scottish; a significant amount of the cast & crew are Scottish. And, most importantly of all – to me – much of the film was shot in Scotland.

One problem with Braveheart was that much of it was not filmed in Scotland at all, but in Ireland: being an independent nation, our Celtic cousins could offer tax breaks and opportunities which were not nearly as forthcoming in a United Kingdom which has a historic reluctance to celebrate Scotland’s history. Most of the interiors were shot in Ardmore; the grounds outside Mornay’s castle Blessington Lakes; Edinburgh Castle was played on screen by Dunsoghly Castle near Finglas; the great plain of Curraugh stood in for Stirling in the Battle of Stirling Sans Bridge, while the Battle of Falkirk was staged just outside Ballymore Eustace. I certainly don’t begrudge the people of Ireland having their lovely land & heritage feature in a blockbuster, but the sweeping shots of the Mamores, Glen Coe, and Glen Nevis (and a brief sequence courtesy of Edinburgh Council Chambers) were all-too-rare treats in a film ostensibly set in Scotland.

Outlaw King was filmed almost entirely in Scotland: the few places filmed outside of the country were in England (mostly because the scenes involved were in, erm, England). When you see Scotland in this film, you’re looking at Scotland – not Ireland standing in, not a CGI creation, but actually Scotland. The real Castle Douglas may be no more, but the oft-filmed Doune Castle stands in well; The Battle of Loudoun Hill was transposed slightly – no thanks to the practicalities of film-making – but Mugdock Park is at least within a few dozen miles, across a river rather than across a sea in another nation; even Berwick, which may technically be in England now, was recreated to resemble its 14th-Century self. And the landscapes, oh, the landscapes! The quiet solitude of Loch an Eilean among the hooded trees of ancient Rothiemurchus Forest; the whispering shores of Inverbeg on the oft-sung-of banks of Loch Lomond; the gowdie sands of Seacliff Beach under the watchful sentinel of Tantallon Castle; the unmistakable slopes of Glen Coe and the crags of the Isle of Skye. Visit Scotland couldn’t have done a better job showcasing our land’s incredible vistas.

Overall, perhaps the actuality of Outlaw King – fine as it is – isn’t quite as important as the idea of it. For the first time, we’re seeing one of the most important stories of Scottish history told, by Scots, to an international audience. If we grasp the thistle, it could be an augur of things to come – more films, more stories, more Scotland on the world’s cinematic and cultural stage. Already there’s been talk of sequels: Bannockburn seems a given should it materialise, perhaps the Bruce’s campaigns in Ireland and Northumbria, and surely the Declaration of Arbroath must have its day in the sun? Why stop there – what of the other thousand years of Scotland’s history?

That’s the greatest gift of Outlaw King: the possibilities of the Scotland to come.

4 thoughts on “Outlaw King Review

  1. Hugh Wallace says:

    I don’t normally read film reviews because I like what I like and rarely agree with the critics who are just as you describe them (IMHO). But this week I have read two excellent reviews of the same film: the other can be found here: https://grousebeater.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/outlaw-king-a-review/

    Next stop, Google, so that I might find where I can view this film (not being a subscriber to Netflix).

    • alharron says:

      Too kind! I found myself in broad agreement with GB’s review: the only divergences regard the sex scene (up until the gratuitous thrusting I thought it was quite a sweet moment of shared vulnerability, and it’s a tried-and-true technique in films to presage extreme violence with nudity) & the music, which I thought was excellent all around.

  2. Ian says:

    I was far too disappointed by the appearance of Edward II at Loudonhill, the ahistoric fight with Bruce and then the absurd spectacle of him being beaten but allowed to freely return to his own side. Odd, unreaslistic, and quite unsatisfactory.

    Very good review. Thanks.

  3. CapnAndy. says:

    Haven’t seen it yet, but looking forward to it. I fully agree with your comments regarding Avengers: Infinity War. It was the wee sign in the chipshop window that got me. There’s nothing worse than someone on an overnight flight with headphones laughing loudly. Sorry folks.

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