Robert the Bruce
Angus Macfadyen returns to the role he played 24 years ago in Mel Gibson's Braveheart with this stoic take on the Scottish freedom fighter that plays like a Celtic western
The opening scene of Robert the Bruce suggests we’re going to be in for a cheese-fest. It’s 1306, and two noblemen with legitimate claims to the Scottish throne, Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) and John Comyn (Jarrid Harris), meet at Greyfriars church – only one will walk out alive. Slow-motion action showing Comyn swinging his concealed broadsword at the unarmed Bruce is paired with a lilting voiceover (from New Zealand actor Anna Hutchison) that’s a tad too heavy on the rolling Rs, and you brace yourself for an ahistorical, overly-romantic dud of a movie.
The rug is fairly pulled from under us, though, when it’s revealed what we’re seeing is the Bruce story being told by Hutchison's widowed croftswoman, Morag, to her boisterous son, Scot (Gabriel Bateman, a vivid young actor on whom much of the film hinges). It's a relief to see the myth undercut.
The date is actually 1312, and the freedom-fighter is in a snow-covered forest at his lowest ebb. He’s lost another confrontation with the English and is ready to pack it all in, telling his exhausted ragtag army to head back to their families. Macfadyen previously played the future King of Scots in Oscar-winner Braveheart, but anyone hoping that this kind-of-but-not-really sequel will follow in the bombastic footsteps of Mel Gibson’s film will be sorely disappointed. For one thing, Robert the Bruce's budget looks to be roughly equivalent to what Gibson had to spend on blue face paint and tartan; its action scenes consist of a handful of low-key skirmishes rather than any dynamic battles.
For another, Macfadyen script's (co-written with Eric Belgau) is concerned with the price of war, rather than its violent spectacle. Excitement is thin on the ground, but in its place this slightly dour film has a righteous, anti-war message that’s to be admired. There's always a price to be paid for glory, and our stoic hero spends most of the picture trying to decide if it's worth the cost.
Rather than a historical epic, Robert the Bruce starts to resemble a snow-bound western, and appropriately enough the film was shot in western territory, with rugged Montana, USA doubling for bonny Scotland. The Bruce is the stranger who comes to town, an outlaw with bounty hunters after the price on his head, taken in by the widow crofter and her family. All of this means not only is Robert the Bruce significantly different from Braveheart, it’s also a world away from last year’s Outlaw King.
Nothing in Robert the Bruce can match Outlaw King’s bravura eight-minute opening shot, but David Mackenzie’s take on the folk hero was let down by conventional storytelling and chaotic action scenes. Robert the Bruce's direction, by Aussie filmmaker Richard Gray, may be less handsome than its Netflix rival, but its smaller-scale story does have the element of surprise on its side. And Macfadyen, having stewed on the character for 24 years, certainly brings more complexity to the Bruce than Chris Pine did for Mackenzie. And if you were disappointed Outlaw King didn’t feature our hero having a chinwag with a creepy-crawly in a cave, you’ll be happy to know Robert's eight-legged roommate makes an appearance here.
The definitive Robert the Bruce film is clearly still to be made then, but this modest, high-minded take is not without its pleasures. It's hard to overlook the film's inauthenticity at times – its setting doesn’t look much like Scotland and a few of the international cast members' accents wander – but Macfadyen’s full-blooded performance and the moral heft of his story proves a pleasing antidote to the other blood-thirsty takes on Celtic rebellion.
Robert the Bruce had its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival and is released 28 Jun by Signature Entertainment
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