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David Mackenzie’s retelling of the Robert the Bruce story for Netflix is bold and watchable, with a spectacular final battle scene shot with flair by the cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Here is the legendary defiance shown by the great 14th-century Scottish insurrectionary, defying the hated English king and fighting a shrewd guerrilla war, luring enemy forces deeply and wearyingly north, while progressively amassing his own support, and then securing a historic victory. Mackenzie has abolished the infamous moment when Robert, hiding out in a cave, is supposedly inspired by the persistence of a spider climbing up its web. The film prefers to plunge us into the familiar zero sum Game of Thrones territory: a violent all-or-nothing grab for power in a world of beards, smocks, priests with weird pudding-bowl fringes and tonsures, smoky outdoor fires, stray clucking chickens and great roistering feasts at which rulers and their queens exchange murmuringly significant remarks at the high table.
Chris Pine is the unfeasibly handsome Robert himself, with a reasonable Scottish accent, who appears naked in a quaint bathing scene and whose rough-yet-groomed appearance must inevitably remind you of the great lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Who’s that?” – “Must be a king.” – “Why?” – “He hasn’t got shit all over him.” Pine is a sympathetic and likable Robert. Stephen Dillane brings his distinctive world-weary menace to the role of the hated English tyrant Edward I. Billy Howle is his pampered and contemptible son, Edward, Prince of Wales, jealous of Robert’s superiority in the matters of combat and masculinity. Florence Pugh is Robert’s passionate and courageous wife Elizabeth. It is good to see James Cosmo lend his weight and force to the movie as Robert’s father.
There is a very interesting single-take scene at the beginning as the English king accepts the gloweringly resentful fealty of the defeated Scottish lords. The later dialogue scenes, dramatically staged on huge beaches, put me in mind of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown. The problem with any heroic-myth version of Robert is how to finesse the act which began his campaign for power: brutally murdering his rival John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) before the altar at the church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries. Here, Mackenzie’s script (written with Bathsheba Doran and James McInnes) has Comyn taunt Robert and effectively threaten to snitch on him to the English king, making Robert out to be a traitor, no matter what. Bruce stabs him almost on an impulse, and then Pine does a shocked, wide-eyed, what-have-I-done expression before he is smartly forgiven by the Scottish clergy and his nice-guy status is briskly restored. The Scottish lords and people remain reasonably subdued while the previous great rebel, William Wallace, is still at large (sadly, no blue-faced cameo for Mel Gibson). But once he is killed, the great uprising is at hand and Robert is the man of destiny.
This is an efficient and watchable film, concluding with Robert’s resounding and historic defeat of the English and establishing independence, although the titles flashed up at the end are a bit sheepish about the apparent abandoning of this for the Acts of Union 400 years later. “That’s another story,” they announce.
• The picture on this article was changed on 12 November 2018 because an earlier version did not show Chris Pine in the film.
Source: The Guardian
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