With 'Outlaw King', when you mention Scotland's medieval history and movies, the first thing that springs to mind is Mel Gibson's 'Braveheart'.
It was an old-school swords-and-sandals romp that had no resemblance to historical accuracy, but it made for a smashing movie. When you sit down to watch 'Outlaw King', it's not long before you realise that David Mackenzie's grisly, weather-worn story isn't going to be anything even close to what Gibson did.
From the outset, 'Outlaw King' deliberately eschews any notions of chivalrous combat or white-toothed knights atop horses. There are no stirring speeches of lands taken, or freedom returned. Instead, it's pale, angry, wild-eyed people who have been ran off their land out for blood. The story follows the general historical beats of the early days of Scotland's wars for independence, with a few embellishments along the way.
Chris Pine as Robert The Bruce sees the American actor adopt a reasonably passable Scots accent. Mercifully, the script is light on monologues for Pine so there aren't enough moments to critique it too thoroughly. Pine's performance roots itself in violent, chaotic battles with the English invaders. Their leader is Prince Edward, played by Billy Howle.
In the grand tradition of English screen villains, Howle utterly chews the scenery at every given opportunity and plays it without a shred of nuance. Stephen Dillane, who plays the father Edward Longshanks, at least has the sense to underplay it whenever possible.
The supporting cast do what they can, but it's unbalanced against them. Florence Pugh, who plays the love interest Elizabeth Burgh, provides for a somewhat distracting subplot involving Robert's daughter. Aaron Taylor Johnson, who plays James Douglas, hams it up as the fearsome Black Douglas and looks more like a wild animal than a Scottish nobleman.
As maddeningly disparate as the performances are, what keeps 'Outlaw King' together is David Mackenzie's direction. Scotland is photographed beautifully with constnat drone shots of the highlands and valleys, but it's the brutality and gore that happens in them that contrasts with it so strongly.
It's shown as a beautiful place where awful, violent things happen - very much like 'Black 47' did earlier this year. The difference here is that while 'Black 47' had a straightforward revenge narrative to work off of, 'Outlaw King' feels decidedly muddled. With a total of five credited screenwriters, including Mark Bomback and Bash Doran, the story gets lost in a sea of violence and mud. It's a shame, as David Mackenzie is a talented director. You only need to look at 'Starred Up' or 'Hell Or High Water' to see what he can do when he has a strong script.
Still, 'Outlaw King' has its moments and there's enough effort and conviction here to see it through the slack parts.