The scenery of Scotland is a glorious thing to behold, and “Outlaw King” plays that particular card to the nines, with sweeping shot after shot of the beautiful and bare scenery of the Scottish highlands. Visually, the film is glorious, capturing both the grandeur and vastness of the countryside, and the muck and grit of close quarters maneuvering through battle in a marsh. At times the movie strives toward the grandeur of those glorious hills, but far too often finds itself sloppily mired down in the muck of its own creation.
The film begins with Robert the Bruce and a cohort of Scottish nobles coming to terms with King Edward I of England in the midst of the first war of Scottish Independence. Bruce is clearly bowing to necessity here; his gruff demeanor and character are revealed in parallel with those of Edward the first, who in contrast seems more calculated, yet vindictive. All of this is achieved with remarkable camerawork in a single unbroken shot lasting for the entire first scene.
Unfortunately, however, the rest of the movie does not quite live up to the pledge of the first act. The development is particularly shabby, as the acts and motivations of central characters are either unclear or simply unexplained. Other than being opportunistic and having a dislike of his overlord, there is no explanation for Bruce’s sudden turn against Edward I. Exposition is heavy handed, and mucks up the film more than any Scottish marsh does.
The visuals, on the other hand, remain remarkable throughout the tale. The camera does not simply take advantage of the natural beauty of its subject, but also represents the mess, strain, and utter confusion of medieval combat with admirable vitality. All of this, moreover, is achieved with little to no resorting to “shaky cam,” which deserves extra recognition when it would be tempting to take the easy route.
The film toys with traditional story structure, ever so slightly. As with most elements of the movie, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. There are several distinct points during the film in which the audience assumes that the denouement has finally arrived and that Bruce’s fortunes are just about to change for the better. Yet every time, when things cannot get worse, they do just that. The ever-spiraling coil of tension gets tighter and tighter throughout the movie; but the misstep is that the third-act payoff does not justify the (admittedly quality) buildup preceding it. It is like Aesop’s Fable of the Mountain and the Mouse. The audience is, like Oliver Twist, still unsatisfied and asking for more.
The characters are, generally, played well, but none of them particularly steal the show. The execution is uneven. The cinematography is glorious. The subject matter is an admirable and shamefully overlooked choice. The decision and attempt to make a film about Robert the Bruce should be lauded and encouraged. But it should also have been done better. Though admittedly with a much better eye to historical accuracy, “Outlaw King” is no “Braveheart.” I wanted to like it more than I did, but there is an excellent movie hidden in that marsh somewhere.