Historical films are a dime a dozen in this day and age of filmmaking but with Netflix’s Outlaw King, there is something unique to it. The film, directed by David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water), actually held its premiere last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it drew a mixed response. Following this, Mackenzie himself ordered the film be re-edited, shaving off twenty minutes of the original runtime. While Talkies Network was not on hand to witness the original extended cut of the film, it was clear that Netflix would support any version of the film that Mackenzie had produced for them, seeing as the film acts as yet another big step for the streaming giant to earn legitimacy in the film industry. With a new runtime of 117 minutes, Outlaw King is a simple and bloody feature that includes rich performances but is bogged down by its uneven storytelling that makes this an odd “good but not great” outing for acclaimed director Mackenzie.
Outlaw King follows a true David vs. Goliath story as it chronicles the tale of Robert the Bruce, a man fiercely loyal to his men and country. Following the defeat of William Wallace in 1305 (the film does act in a way as a spiritual sequel to Braveheart), Robert seizes the opportunity to ascend the Scottish throne. But England unleashes its fury, forcing the proud king into exile. Now known far-and-wide as an outlaw, Robert must use both strategy and his warrior skills to win back his nation for his people.
The film opens incredibly promisingly, with a seven minute long-take laying down the foundation for Robert’s world. The tyrannical King Edward has defeated the fighting Scots and we see him lay down the law for the country. The camera then meticulously follows Pine’s Robert the Bruce through a beautiful day light where he takes part in a quick but action-packed sword fight. The entire sequence is superbly constructed, introducing viewers to what the film has in store for them: a a brutal war based on differing political ideologies that includes beautiful beards and stunning sword fights.
Taking a page out of Game of Thrones’ book, Outlaw King makes great use of its backdrops. Shot on location in England and Scotland, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shows off the countries’ beauty in every scene: reflecting lakes, calming hillsides and grey sky that perfectly captures the tone of the film. And with those backdrops, comes enthralling battle set-pieces as Outlaw King may be one of Netflix’s most brutal projects yet. The film makes it clear that Robert’s rebellion (pun intended for all you GOT fans), was a constant uphill battle. Not having the man power nor the weaponry that England possessed, Robert the Bruce resorted to a more stealth-like fighting style when reclaiming land. Once he had shown his presence however, his band of warriors did not shy away from severely cutting down the English forces. There is mud and blood all over the screen but Ackroyd and Mackenzie’s continuous use of long-takes allows for the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the battle at hand.
Where the film lacks however is in its story as there is a clear sense of a muddled script. The film, according to the credits, has three credited screenwriters and two writers who contributed “additional material.” Particularly in the first act, the film does feel somewhat rushed, making one thing that maybe the twenty minutes that was shaved off in editing would have made for a more streamlined pace. Outlaw King follows a number of years in the life of Robert the Bruce and his beginning is shown at a breakneck pace, flying to moment to moment that leads to Robert deciding to become king. Once the film reaches that point, the story begins moving more steadily but before it, the story runs through a number of impactful aspects of Robert’s life, never allowing for the film to catch its breath.
Its performances though are what carry the narrative as Chris Pine is great as the outlaw king himself Robert the Bruce. A soft-spoken, good-hearted man who seeks to win back his nation, Pine plays the role with a quiet-charisma but he is not afraid to get his hands dirty. When talking to his men, he is calm and collected albeit a little frustrated. But on the battlefield, he is brutal, violent and a true leader, living up to his name of the outlaw king. Aaron Taylor-Johnson co-stars as James Douglas, a man stripped of his family land who holds a grudge against the English. Taylor-Johnson is charmingly vengeful as he proves himself a noble warrior amongst Bruce’s campaign. As the film’s main villain, Billy Howle fully embraces the spirit of great medieval villains of the past such as GOT’s Joffrey in which he becomes more unhinged and vicious as the movie progresses. He walks the line of emotional prince and nasty killer so well; you almost never know what he is going to do next. Finally, Florence Pugh stars as Robert’s bride Elizabeth and while her role is smaller when compared to the rest, she proves to be the thing that always grounds Robert, supporting his cause and never showing weakness when facing the enemy.
Ultimately, Outlaw King is worth checking out once it drops on Netflix. Featuring vicious battles, solid performances and incredibly landscapes, the film is a very easy watch, even if it lacks in fleshing out the characters. The movie is definitely levels about previous Netflix original films but it unfortunately never reaches the level of greatness it has the potential for. I may fall in the minority here by saying the film should have kept the twenty minutes it edited out, but with this new cut, Outlaw King is still a very entertaining watch, proving that David Mackenzie has a very promising future in film with his growing diverse filmography.
Rating – 7/10
Outlaw King begins streaming on Netflix on November 9, 2018.