Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 23rd, 2020
Robert the Bruce (Richard Gray, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.
The great Scottish leader Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) routed the English in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn, having taken up the reins of the earlier rebellion led by William Wallace, who was captured and executed in 1305 by the occupiers. It was far from an easy path to victory for Bruce and his initially motley crew, as recounted in last year’s rousing period action thriller Outlaw King, which saw Chris Pine bare body and soul in his quest for Scottish independence. While that film was far from perfect, it was dramatically engaging from start to finish, both in terms of performances and script. The beautiful, glacier-carved northern landscapes further enhanced Outlaw King’s cinematic qualities, carrying the viewer through its less impressive moments with the raw majesty of the place.
Now comes a new treatment of the same character, entitled simply Robert the Bruce, in which Angus Macfadyen (She Rises) incarnates the titular character, which he first played years ago in Mel Gibson’s 1995 Braveheart. A co-writer and producer on the movie, as well, Macfadyen deserves full credit for actively pushing the drama in a different direction from the usual biopic. No great battles here; rather, the conflict is mostly internal, as Bruce falters in his fight and considers giving up, ultimately finding his way again thanks to the kindly intercession of a humble family. It’s nice to see a different approach to the story.
Unfortunately, what results is dramatically inert. Director Richard Gray (Broken Ghost) may not be given all that much to work with, but neither does he bring any noteworthy aesthetic flair or urgency to undergird Bruce’s psychological torment. And so we are left with a mostly melancholy and flaccid treatment about a man in crisis. In some ways the tone befits the subject, but this cinema of existential ennui is all too frequently a bore to behold. Macfadyen is a dour presence, but at least he delivers a heartfelt performance, as does Anna Hutchison (also a producer) as the young widow who rescues him from physical pain and mental anguish. In contrast, Zach McGowan (The Brawler), as the film’s villain, has not much to do but sneer and be evil. At least he has some energy, though, which the movie desperately needs.
For that is the insult to Bruce’s injury: a vibrant fighter, he here does not much more than mope, bringing us down with him. What scenes of skirmish exist are poorly staged and even more sloppily executed, starting with the opener where Bruce kills rival John Comyn (a wasted Jared Harris). The rest do not improve. The historical Bruce looms as a giant in the annals of the time; it’s wonderful that the creators of this Robert the Bruce wanted to remind us of his insecure humanity. In so doing, however, they have reduced him to a passive participant in his own narrative, making this version of his tale an often tedious slog. May he live to fight again, please.