Directed by David Mackenzie
Starring Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh
If you feel like historical epics are too much like history lessons, fear not: Outlaw King (or Outlaw/King as its own opening title says once you start streaming it on Netflix) is fairly easy to grasp. It is 1304, and Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane, lending his own brand of weary menace to the proceedings) has wrested the crown from the Scottish lords after an uncertain succession and eight years of rebellion.
The film opens with a nine-minute tracking shot—a narrative technique fast wearing out its welcome due to how often it’s been used and abused lately—that may be a craven attempt by director David Mackenzie at announcing his grand creative ambitions, but at least efficiently dispenses with exposition: Edward I accepts the surrender of the sour-faced, clench-jawed Scottish lords in a battlefield tent, chief among them Robert the Bruce (Richard Cosmo) and his eldest son, also called Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine). Meanwhile, the younger Robert the Bruce exits the tent and is challenged to a duel by the insecure Edward II (Billy Howle, working admirably against a horrendous bowl cut), establishing a contentious relationship rooted in feelings of inferiority since childhood. The camera swoops back into the tent as Lord of Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) demands that his family’s lands, confiscated after his father was tried and executed as a rebel-leading traitor in London, be restored to him. Douglas getting thrown out then serves as a segue for the camera to glide outside the tent again as the English sore-winner tyrant demonstrates a new catapult that destroys a castle turret in one, fiery go. Everything you need to get caught up in one, unbroken shot.
After an arranged marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), the daughter of an English army marshal, and the death of his father (“I made a grave mistake in trusting Edward…”, then a slump), Robert is out paying his taxes when the drawn and quartered arm and chest of William Wallace (yes, the William Wallace that Mel Gibson played in blue face in Braveheart) makes its tour stop at the town square, and Robert is galvanized into action. He gets his younger brothers to sign off on his quest to seek the support of other Scottish lords for a renewed rebellion.
The script by Mackenzie, Bash Doran and James MacInnes finesses the controversial act that set Robert the Bruce on the road to claiming the Scottish crown—the murder of longtime rival claimant John III Comyn (Callan Mulvey)—by framing it as an act of split-second self-preservation.