These are my views on one of 2018’s most effective pieces of cinematic recreation that retrieved Scotland’s tale of tales from the dustbowls of history and put it on our laps via its distribution by global giant Netflix.
OUTLAW KING (2018)
We often ascribe everything bad happening in the modern world to one person, one group, a single government or one particular nation. But it’s practical to see that the tentacles of nation building or society as a whole reach somewhere deep within the barrels of history, contemporary or older. The synthesis of human interaction is responsible for half of an era’s grandstanding ethics and the more we reflect, the better we realize that a distant light from the past has illuminated the definition of our civilization’s future and immediate present.
We say “that’s how it was back then” . Agreed. But isn’t it a cyclical iteration when it comes to the brutality of war, revenge tropes and armies against formidable armies? It would be safe to say that amorality has laid the foundation of our world over successive generations altogether and a work like OUTLAW KING lets us access our medieval past and find its footprints in the civilized here and now. Not a very different picture emerges when hordes have to raise weapons against another. Even if it’s in the name of absolute honour. Every sincere badge of patriotism is tinged with blood and this is the order we have been following in a man’s world. A grey, amoral zone then accommodates that understanding.
That said, unraveling of contentious history is often treated as some kind of a grandiloquent opera in filmmaking. In OUTLAW KING, its rhythms are fundamentally attuned to the many gradations of lives at stake and especially those of the aristocracy which come into their own. It’s the tale of Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s true heir to the throne who is made to reel from the dominance of England and is less than a regent, a nominal leader in his own land whose father and countrymen have somehow knelt to England’s King Edward. It’s a kingdom in tatters and the idea of confrontation is out of the picture. Maybe for the continuum of peace for common citizens. Or for preserving the kingdom of Scotland from an early extinction.
Director David Mckenzie chooses to focus on the resurrection of the crown prince and without waxing poetic, he charts the rise of a nation’s conscience under its newly awakened king who scuttles his own deference to England to see it for the corrupting force it is. There is a time and place to court change. The gradual plan for change emerges in this screenplay and it is replete with the acrid smell of bloodshed and death.
The progression is handsomely mounted by Mckenzie in terms of imagery and an internalized charge of the slumbering spirit. It’s epic yet finds a cumulation of intimate, individual moments to reach the final stage of battle. Intrigue is promising when it joins hands with vulnerability and OUTLAW KING knows when to offset one with the other. It would not be wrong to say that the storytelling attempts to present a vantage point overlooking a place’s future vis a vis Robert overlooking Scotland as its king. The title refers to his status as one in the eyes of his opponents. On top of it all, like every great leader, he has formidable allies supplementing his mission for justice who end up uplifting the film’s bearings as they did the original era’s history.
The trinity of Chris Pine as the titular historical figure, Florence Pugh as his wife Elizabeth and Aaron Taylor Johnson as James Douglas, one of Bruce’s greatest allies, is definitive of this dramatic presentation. It finds the flame of a post William Wallace Scotland in its quest for liberation from the all pervading British crown. In Mel Gibson’s highly definitive epic BRAVEHEART (1995), which I rate as one of the true life legends recreated on screen that totally gripped me, the Oscar winning actor- director essayed William Wallace as a Scottish hero daring the greater force. Outlaw King picks up the pieces from there, portraying Scotland as a country still on its path to realizing its fledgling destiny after he is executed, with his head impaled on a stake and put on display in the public square, in one of the most gruesome images from the screenplay . In the Brexit era, it holds water as a lesson from the past up for knocks in the modern world. The idea of independence on all basic fronts threatened by one block.
On the performative part, Pine is a natural presence, not overtly sensitive or exercising unnecessary bravado but is dignified and an unifier. A risk taker, he takes his time, with full preparedness to launch his crusade with his loyal supporters and this gradual metamorphosis is reflected in his arc. This approach is practical given the unpredictable stakes he was up against. An all out glorified king would be simply out of place in this scenario and would betray historical facts. The characterisation and impersonation of Robert by Pine stands in good stead then.
Florence Pugh, a phoenix of the contemporary cinematic stage, makes the most of an otherwise thankless part in a male dominated scenario and given the opportunities that were accorded to females back in the age. She imbues conventional beats afforded to her, as an appendage, with courage, dedication and fearless stoicism. As goddaughter of King Edward of England, her marriage of convenience to Robert and role as a nominal figure is solemnized but the sensitivity of the couple and a mutual passion for each other, also in terms of the uprising, is established in earnest. Elizabeth is an individual unto herself and the fact that Edward is not her biological parent gives her the neutrality to see him as the oppressor plaguing her overall domain. In a later patch, her social mobility and position as the queen is naturally integrated even in an extremely adverse condition as she raises her voice against the hegemony and which pardons her on account of her noble breeding from the horrors that commoners had to face, at the command of a whip or gang of brutal handymen of the English crown. This works in the favor of her progression.
She is unbending even when vulnerable.
Aaron Taylor Johnson, on the other hand, so good and realistic as prime antagonist in the richly textured NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), splays open the beastly violence of the mind here that he adapts after being denuded of his high ranking family and possession of land. As James Douglas, he vows to avenge his family’s death and becomes Robert’s right hand man. His gleeful laugh when vanquishing his opponents is an effective study in contrast with that of his leader. He is, in fact, Robert’s trumpcard in the campaign to reclaim his country.
So if Robert is the heart, Elizabeth the soul, James is the feral spirit possessed by the desire to redress ills in the fashion he knows best. As the opening scene from the trailer shows, he knows the ins and outs of exacting revenge and understands the complexity of the matter, sharing it with the king.
The other formidable ally being Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran), who too leads from the front. His experience and unshaking fealty to the crown and country is a true measure of the powerful leadership of Scotland that is minimal compared to English armies of thousands yet prevails. Their performances are, of course, honed by Mckenzie to suit the part of authenticity.
On the other side of the spectrum, one can’t help but notice that the English king’s son, the Prince of Wales- Edward as vividly played by Billy Howle, is also a victim of his father’s overbearing attitude and hauteur. The image of the final battle featuring him has stayed with me. He struggles to get up after conceding defeat to Scotland, as if he’s almost blind, staggering literally to find his destiny, forever under the thumb of a dynasty he has to stake claim to. Nobody from his side comes to his aid. Our empathy is with him. Spurred on by his father to exercise aggression and berated even as the old man is on his deathbed, we realize how lonely and tragically wrought he has been all his life and the road ahead too is bleak. The epilogue tells us he was killed by his own courtiers later on as he received the mantle of King of England. It is a life dictated by tides of kingship, the toxic masculinity of monarchy and every brute effort by him is like a sideways glance to have his father’s approval, failing which he is made to feel inferior all the way through. Billy Howle gives an extra dimension to Prince Edward with his own touch. I responded to his dilemma. This is how male aggression is propagated in our world and again it’s a strain that is relevant to this day.
Technically, I appreciated its period feel and eye for authenticity.
The indoors open to the outer spaces and the tracking shots along with many panoramic angles are well designed courtesy the cinematography.
It opens with the image of a burning candle. It becomes a symbol of the time for change that is fast approaching for Robert and his compatriots. It is reflective of a passage of introspection too, used as the only source of light in several night scenes where intense emotions rule the roost.
The parallelism with Robert’s coronation ceremony and Prince Edward being annointed as army commander and in the solitary moments centered on Robert and Elizabeth works well.
The same goes for the battle scenes and one particular instance of brutal execution meted out to one of Robert’s brothers.
**so the composite whole is etched out with burning agency and the thought hangs at the back of our heads that civilization has prospered by dint of conquests, blasphemy and cold blooded pursuits, as I had said earlier. The ambivalence of empires hence occupies the bigger picture. OUTLAW KING achieves that timely, universal portent of temporal structures and the way History commands Chivalry and Courage by hands of War.
I found it impactful with the salient points being the performances by everyone, landscapes, composition of scenes down to death sequences accorded to the ageing monarchs of both countries ( played memorably by veterans James Cosmos and Stephen Dillane) as coils of mortality wear these two childhood friends and temperamentally different patriarchs down. Ditto the accolades for its musical score and closing moments of mayhem, bedlam and reflection.
The idea of a nation equivalent to its people is attested here. As I have always believed, we can never know the exact truth as historical subjects are no more with us but the creative medium somehow manages to imagine them with fierce agency. OUTLAW KING is a fine example as in two hours, it creates a snapshot of a historical era.
It’s another important milestone for NETFLIX as a premature veteran in the filmmaking sphere, for the director fresh off his HELL OR HIGH WATER success and for the sensible scope of history resuscitated on cinematic platforms as this film released simultaneously in theaters as well and rightfully so.
The medium doesn’t matter here. This is a stirring showcase.
NOTE : This article originally graced my essay collection A LETTERED SOUL on Wattpad.