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By Danièle Cybulskie
The biggest-budget movie ever to be filmed in Scotland, and the opening feature of the Toronto International Film Festival, Netflix’s Outlaw King has a lot riding on it. Although it sticks to the medieval film playbook – mud, blood, and a bit of romance – it’s in the details that Outlaw King stands out, giving Robert the Bruce’s fight for independence a uniquely Scottish air.
Outlaw King begins in 1304 with the submission of the Scottish nobles to England’s Edward I and the testing of the world’s biggest trebuchet – War Wolf – against the walls of surrendered Stirling Castle. From this moment of humiliation and subjugation, the internal struggle begins for Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), as he deals with the complications of fealty to a tyrannical overlord. The Bruce is roundly scolded by a rough-looking William Wallace for his unwillingness to fight for Scottish independence, notably at Falkirk, but after the death of both his father and Wallace, Robert embraces his place as one of the two rivals to the Scottish throne, and renews the fight for independence.
The strength of the film in its retelling of history is that it allows for the tangle of relationships between families, clans, and the aristocracy that made the Anglo-Scottish wars so complex. The characters (as the real historical people) are caught in a vast web of conflicting loyalties, which makes anything as simple as “unite the clans” a Herculean task. No one’s duty is clear cut, especially when Robert commits an unthinkable act. There is space made in the dialogue to allow for these relationships to be uncovered, which gives the audience a clearer picture of how difficult Robert’s task to bring Scotland together under one crown really is.
While the Scots are given a complexity in their loyalties, strategies, and relationships, the English are pretty much straightforward baddies, sneeringly superior, brutal, and malicious, swinging their swords at anything that moves. Edward II (Billy Howle) is nearly unrecognizable in this violent and militaristic attitude. Although his relationship with his father is immediately familiar, there is little hint of the man who preferred digging ditches to being king (although Piers Gaveston appears, there is only the barest hint at their relationship, and only if you’re looking for it). Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) steals the show as a pitch-perfect Edward I: a king who has seen it all, and whose violence and arrogance stems (disturbingly) from both intelligence and experience.
Pine’s Robert the Bruce is an extremely reluctant king, and more time is spent on what he is fighting against rather than what he is fighting for. While it seems necessary to comment on his accent (as that’s uppermost in many people’s minds), it’s also unnecessary: his accent is noticeably imperfect but not painful, and it seems petty to fault him for it. As a medievalist, I appreciated the care Pine’s Robert showed towards his young English wife Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) in their arranged marriage, even if it strained credulity at some points. Pine’s quiet hostility and discomfort with his role as subservient to the English in early scenes is some of his best work.
As for the women: well, there pretty much aren’t any besides Pugh, so it’s lucky that she gives each moment everything she’s got, stealing scenes whenever she’s in them. Women appear in their traditional film roles as symbols of home and a reason to fight for the most part, although scenes in which they sing in gaelic while they work are a pleasure to watch.
And that’s where the film goes beyond the norm: its absolute Scottishness from start to finish. It’s always a treat to see Scotland on the screen, but more than that, it’s the culture and the land that are at the very heart of the story director David Mackenzie wants to tell. Understanding the land, as the Bruce tells us, is the key to understanding how the Scots ever managed to win their independence.
Medieval military historians will appreciate the centrality of the Scottish terrain in some of the key scenes in Outlaw King. The use of the land forces audiences to imagine what it would be like to run for your life up a Scottish munro in the rain wearing chainmail, or the nightmare of riding heavy horse in a charge into boggy ground. The way Robert used terrain and razed castles behind him was critical to his strategy, so it’s nice to see it find its place in film. Beyond battles, the land is lovingly filmed in all its glory, with its sudden rains, wild waters, stunning coasts, and unexpected rainbows. (It also heavily features my favourite castles, Craigmillar and Doune).
The film collapses the events of 1304 – 1307 into what seems like a matter of weeks, ending with the Battle of Loudoun Hill (not Bannockburn), and as with any other movie, any attempt to fit history into the neat rectangle of a screen is bound to distort it somewhat. As a medievalist, there were definitely moments that made me say, “Wait. What?” But as a medievalist, I fully expect that when I go to the movies. Most of the directorial decisions as to what to include (the bit with the spider) and what to leave out (Bannockburn) make sense, although patriotic decisions made at the end of the film will leave some medievalists shaking their heads.
For non-historians, this film delivers on everything expected of a medieval movie: a dark and violent past, star power, lots of fighting, and a gorgeous backdrop. For historians, it offers treasures in the little details of the costumes, props, and scenery. For everyone, it offers a glimpse of a key figure in Scotland’s long and difficult road to independence, told by those to whom it matters most: the Scots, themselves.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist