Review: Outlaw King

This movie is a Netflix Original.

Aesthetics and unusual historical accuracy are the stars of Netflix's Outlaw King. This film has benefited from the embrace of authenticity established by recent television shows such as Game of Thrones or as far back as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Director David Mackenzie brings the same dynamic camera work, attention to detail, and muscular approach to character, plot, and theme as in his most recent (but far more intimate) film, Hell or High Water. Being Scottish himself, there's a strong sense his raw love for his homeland in the sweeping shots of the sublime landscapes of Scotland.

Due to its position on the historical timeline, the film invites comparisons to Braveheart and can occasionally feel like a partial sequel. Outlaw King focuses on the aftermath of Wallace's rebellion, telling the story of Robert Bruce's conversion from allegiance with King Edward I of England to waging guerrilla war and eventually winning Scottish independence. Many set-pieces and events in Braveheart were borrowed from the exploits of Robert Bruce long after William Wallace's death. This means that chunks of Outlaw King will feel familiar. It's best to think of this as a more realistic depiction of a long war that was, in Braveheart, shown as a snap decision to charge a field.

Chris Pine has a tendency to disappear into his smaller roles, often in underseen movies like Stretch. He uses the same approach here, becoming unrecognizable as a movie star save for his piercing blue eyes. He is surrounded by familiar faces, especially for Game of Thrones fans, including Stephen Dillane, James Cosmo, Tony Curran, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a standout supporting role as Black Douglas.

The acting is functional with few flashy acting moments and little depth in the characterization. Some viewers will want more scenes that focus on letting us get to know these characters. The exceptions are the scenes between Robert and his English wife Elizabeth, played by Florence Pugh, where they share strong chemistry and some sharp, economical dialogue to convey their growing affections for each other.

Romance, in the literary sense of the term, is often an element in movies like this, but here the tone is driven more by gritty realism. The period and its events are framed with welcome sophistication, including both the material character of the Scottish aristocracy, with lavish castles and vibrant culture, and attention to social factors like the Church, chivalry, and marriage alliances.

It's the abandoning of chivalry by Edward as he responds to Robert's new rebellion that kicks off a lot of the plot momentum. Ambushed and scattered before they can even fight their first battle, Robert and his allies find themselves roaming the Scottish landscape. For the bulk of the second act, they try to hold it together while besieged not only by the English but their own countrymen. The Church plays a huge role in a simplified version of the real story: Robert kills a rival in a church and faces excommunication but the Scottish clergy cut a deal with him that supports his ascension, though they can't protect him from Scots that reject his claim.

It's a long road for Robert, but the movie carves through it quickly and leaves us with the first major turning point in the war: an open battle at Loudon Hill that Robert wins against overwhelming odds. The pace of the film keeps it from overstaying its welcome. The battle scenes are rousing, bloody, and realistic enough to hold our attention while we begin to see why Robert was eventually successful.

Those looking for a nuanced, “both sides”, take on this conflict may be disappointed as the focus on Robert casts him as a man of the people, ahead of his time in his social contract approach to lordship. The English start out a little more gray than they were in Braveheart but eventually become painted as cruel, tyrannical, and evil baddies. According to historical accounts this is not far off. It does leave the film with a simplistic “good vs. bad” story that doesn't quite live up to the complexity of other elements, particularly the social structure and aesthetic details of the period and people.

Outlaw King is a solid historical war film with details that will please both history buffs and fans of this genre. Those looking for a deeper story with richer characters may feel shorted, but a leaner approach to this type of film feels refreshing and welcome at a time where few of them are getting made.