Screening History: “Outlaw King” (2018)

I’d been meaning to watch the Netflix film Outlaw King for some time now. As someone who has an abiding interest in the depiction of history in film and television, it seemed like it might be a worthwhile watch. While I did enjoy the film, what struck me the most was just how forgettable it was, hardly the sort of cinematic legacy that Robert the Bruce, one of Scotland’s most famous heroes, should inspire.

The film centers on the man Robert the Bruce–portrayed for better or worse by Chris Pine–one of the claimants to the Scottish throne. He repeatedly falls afoul of the English King Edward I and his son Edward, until he nearly loses his life and the throne he has fought for so diligently. Ultimately, however, he attains his goal, leaving the English thoroughly defeated on the field of battle, leaving Robert to claim his crown.

The entire time I was watching this film, I found myself wondering: why Chris Pine? I mean, of all the Chrises who are currently making their way in Hollywood, he’s probably the last one that I would have picked to play a man like Robert the Bruce. To be fair, he does a creditable job in the role, but he really lacks the charisma and weightiness to really make his portrayal of a truly epic hero. The fact that he isn’t Scottish, and that he doesn’t really make an effort to speak in an accent really hamstrings his portrayal.

The rest of the cast does their best with a script that doesn’t really give them a lot of room for development. Stephen Dillane, fresh out of his outing as the hard-nosed and implacable Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, turns in a convincing performance as the heartless and cruel Edward I, arguably one of the sternest and brutal kings that England has ever produced. Florence Pugh is moderately engaging as Robert’s wife Elizabeth, though I have to admit that there wasn’t much chemistry there, and I was not significantly moved by their “romance.”

Where the film really succeeds, however, is in its cinematography. Like all good epics–especially those set in mountainous regions such as Scotland, the film makes good use of its scenery. Time and again, the camera flies overhead, revealing grand, sweeping vistas that literally take one’s breath away. Unfortunately, the actual dramatic part of the film doesn’t have nearly as strong an effect, and while I enjoyed the story, I really didn’t feel moved at any points. It was, despite the huge amount of blood gore, a largely bloodless affair.

Speaking of all of that blood and gore…it seems that, to match the grimdark sub-genre of fantasy, we’re now to be subjected history films and TV series that do the same. Some, such as History Channel’s Vikings, can get away with it because they have a cast and a story that is engaging on its own. Films like Outlaw King, however, lean far too much into this “gritty” portrayal of the medieval past. In fact, the film’s final battle is just one long, muddy, cacophonous mess.

Aside from the gratuitously loud sound that always seemed to accompany these sequences, we also have the fact that it becomes rather boring after a while. I’m not saying that bloodshed and battle shouldn’t be part of the representation of the medieval past, but I do wonder whether this new mud, blood, and guts method of portraying that period is nearly as titillating or visually interesting as the producers and directors seem to think. As with sex (which used to be the go-to for historical fictions), one has to make sure that all of the titillation has a story and characters to support it. Outlaw King, unfortunately, has neither.

All in all, I thought that Outlaw King was a fine outing as far as it goes, a brief foray into a period of Anglo-Scottish history that hasn’t been tapped really well since Braveheart (say what you will about that film’s abuses of history, it’s still a damn fine epic). Unlike Braveheart, however, I do rather doubt that Outlaw King will stand the test of time to become a marker of what the genre can do.

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