Robert the Bruce Review
The real Braveheart?
Almost a quarter of a century after his character's inglorious mistreatment in Braveheart, Angus MacFadyen returns to the role to right some wrongs, in a sequel nobody ever expected.Mel Gibson's historical romps are utterly rousing entertainment - in particular the underrated The Patriot - but they generally take significant liberties with the truth, with his sophomore critical and commercial directorial hit, Braveheart, highly controversial for its portrayal of the characters pivotal in Scottish history. Despite becoming a flagship vehicle for the SNP on release, Braveheart actually did a fairly good job at alienating both English and Scottish sides, portraying the former as moustache-twirling uber-villains and, in the case of the latter, splitting Scots' loyalties between the heroic depiction of William Wallace and a somewhat lesser treatment of similar Scots hero Robert the Bruce.
The reality is that it was Robert the Bruce who was actually dubbed "Braveheart", continuing the mission started by Wallace to fend off the English and become the first King of Scotland after a decade without anybody on the throne. Braveheart, the movie, turned him into basically Wallace's Judas, making up an entire arc where he betrays Wallace to the English.
Now, 24 years later, actor Angus MacFadyen - who also wrote the piece - reprises his role as Robert the Bruce, to bring a minor but historically pivotal legend to life, about the icon's rumoured time in the wilderness, where he forged a determination to rise to the throne and complete Wallace's mission.
Telling a story which is, in its own way, a microcosmic analogy for the larger uprising as a whole
Following William Wallace's execution, Robert the Bruce has suffered a number of losses fighting the English with his Estate dismantled, his brother executed and his family captured and tortured. Excommunicated and with a large bounty on his head, he is wounded and hunted, seeking refuge with a single mother and her young family and reflecting on the tough choices he must make if he wishes to lead Scotland to victory and finally be recognised as the true King of Scotland.
Netflix recently spent some time in the company of Robert the Bruce in David 'Hell or High Water' Mackenzie's Chris Pine drama The Outlaw King, which is arguably a more conventional Braveheart sequel, at least in terms of battles and scope. MacFayden isn't interested in anything as epic (nor would he likely have had the budget to pull it off - even Mackenzie struggled despite it being one of Netflix's most expensive productions) and elects instead to focus on a much more intimate tale.
The legends say during the Winter of 1306, Robert the Bruce was on the run, wounded and hiding in a cave, when he saw a spider repeatedly trying to build a web, despite numerous falls and failures along the way, inspiring him to take up the if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again maxim and return with redoubled determination to unite the Scots and drive the English out of Scotland. MacFayden works hard to fashion a small tale which encompasses this specific legend, eschewing the epic battles of Braveheart (and attempts at the same in The Outlaw King) in favour of a snapshot at smaller, internal, conflict.
He seeks to at once regale this pivotal turning point for the Scots hero whilst also telling a story which is, in its own way, a microcosmic analogy for the larger uprising as a whole, seen here through the eyes of a small 'King'-less Scottish family who, though ostensibly loyal to the English throne, have to make their own decisions about their future - will they be strong-armed into an oppressive regime, or possibly sacrifice their own lives making a seemingly impossible stand against insurmountable odds?
The Outlaw King is the more conventional sequel, but Robert the Bruce succeeds in telling a smaller, more personal story which is much more unusual
There's some earnest effort here, which does not go unnoticed, with MacFayden investing in both the script and his performance as the character, going some way to right previous wrongs in spite of a non-existent budget and a limited arena for him to carry out his plans. He's clearly too old for the role now (as Outlaw King fans will know from seeing Chris Pine play the same role during exactly the same period) but he still makes it work as best he can. It's almost a solo piece, with scatterings of violence, but by going small, and thus making the limited skirmishes he does depict pleasantly engaging, he bookends the piece with relatively brutal fights that are surprisingly well captured for a film of this scale. It's hardly revolutionary, with the mid-section of the movie floundering somewhat in introspect, but it's still more than many would expect from a low budget indie sequel to a film from a quarter of a century ago.
The Scottish landscape is clearly as timelessly beautiful as it was 700 years ago, and a committed cast of supporting actors (briefly we get Jared Harris, from Chernobyl and The Expanse, as well as Agents of SHIELD's Zach McGowen as the villain, and Spartacus' Anna Hutchison as the widow who shelters Robert the Bruce) colour in the frame, leaving the two hour runtime only modestly extravagant for a feature that is far from epic in scale in comparison to its forebear. It's not going to win any awards, but it gets the job done, even if that job is perhaps not quite what people who have seen the poster or trailer might expect.
The Outlaw King is ostensibly the more conventional sequel that everybody (or nobody) was waiting for, but the reality is that, despite not having the same scale, budget or battle quota, Robert the Bruce succeeds in other ways where that film failed; telling a smaller, more personal story which is more unusual, and thus, maybe, in its own way, just as welcome.
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