SCOTLAND’S HEROIC KING GETS THE EPIC TREATMENT
Robert the Bruce – and the Scottish landscape – get the big screen treatment
JASON SOLOMONS talks to the director of a gripping new film about Robert the Bruce in which the Scottish landscape plays a leading role
Seven hundred years may seem like a long time in politics, but judging by the bitter divisions of medieval England and Scotland as shown in new epic movie Outlaw King, things don’t really change that much. Not even the hairstyles.
With the story of Robert the Bruce and his battles against England’s occupying King Edward in 1306, Scottish director David Mackenzie has finally got a longgestating passion project onto screens and, when I meet him, he’s sporting a magnificent long, black beard, the sort of thing any warrior, or Harry Potter’s Hagrid (played by Scots giant Robbie Coltrane) would be proud of.
“Well, I thought I’d get in touch with all my characters,” says Mackenzie, while also acknowledging that he wouldn’t look out of place in a
Edinburgh hipster cafe or Glasgow craft brewery. “The contemporary aspect of Robert the Bruce’s story is what resonated,” he says, more seriously. “So while facial hair is trendy right now, it was more exploring the political aspects and elements of heroism and national pride that interested me.”
And indeed that’s what will grip any viewer of Outlaw King, along with its majestic use of Scottish landscape and the sheer epic size of the battling armies and ancient castles. It’s an old-fashioned spectacle, complete with horses and armour, the sort of thing rarely seen in British movies these days – I had to think back to Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V for any comparison.
“That’s what I wanted,” says Mackenzie, who took advantage of his career-high with 2016 Oscar-nominated American thriller Hell or High Water to break through into big budget filmmaking, attracting the new money of Netflix to the story of one of his heroes. Known as an indie film maker,
Mackenzie had made several Scottish films before (Hallam Foe, Young Adam, Perfect Sense, The Last Great Wilderness) but nothing approaching this scale.
“I was definitely brought up on the story of Robert the Bruce and considered him a national hero,” says Mackenzie. “I always felt he was done an injustice in the film of Braveheart [in which he betrays William Wallace] and this was my time to put that right.”
Bruce, whose most famous battle as King of Scotland was at Bannockburn in 1314, was, many historians assert, the real ‘Braveheart’ and he was a supporter of the rebel Wallace, who we do see in this new film, although only in bits – his hung, drawn and quartered body parts turn up in various Scottish towns as the English make an example of what comes from insurrection.
“There’s a sense that as a Scottish national hero, Robert is almost too dangerous to touch for a film maker, but the complexities of that was what attracted me, following a man who goes from noble, to murderer, to king to outlaw then, through politics and war, back to the king who led Scotland to recognition as an independent kingdom. It’s a great comeback story, a story of persistence, like the spider continually building his web in the children’s story about Robert we all grew up with.”
Mackenzie’s impressive achievement in Outlaw King is to make the complex web of family, politics, obligations and loyalties that was the feudal system both comprehensible and exciting, while rooting the action in the sweeping landscape of Scotland, where he managed to shoot the film over 65 autumn days.
“It’s a film about a land, so it would have been awful to not shoot there,” he tells me. “We did have New Zealand as back up, but thankfully that never came into the picture and we were able to use the perfect window of time – the autumn. I’ve always wanted to shoot a movie in Scotland at this time of year, because it’s the most beautiful time for me, that strangled, last light of the summer rays, the colours changing. I’ve always loved that landscape and some of it hasn’t changed in 700 years and it’s still a refuge, an inspiration and the soul of the people. We got it all – rain, fog, sun, storms, wind – but all at the right time, just when we wanted it.”
Historical sites featuring in the film include Linlithgow Palace, Craigmillar Castle, Dunfermline Abbey, Borthwick Castle and Doune Castle, as well as the University of Glasgow and the city’s cathedral. “We also practically invaded the Isle of Skye and took over every hotel room on the island,” recalls Mackenzie.
While the production boasts impeccable technical credentials, with everything to the costumes and hair having the right feel, I wonder how the politics of the piece chime today?
Outlaw King arrives amid feverish political situations in England and Scotland, where questions of independence and ties with Europe seem as relevant now as then.
“Look,” says Mackenzie, “it’s really a tough one. What I’m saying with the film is that this is a 700-year-old old story that happened in a country that was militarily occupied by a neighbouring country – so that’s very different to now and any parallels with contemporary situations are therefore tenuous.
“But you can’t help noticing how things come around – one of the things that Robert did best was unify his country, so I was determined not to make this about divisions, which the recent referendums in both Scotland and England have certainly done their best to exacerbate. Of course, an epic movie about a medieval unifier is going to chime during an era of division, but in complex and difficult ways, not glaringly obvious ones. The last thing I wanted was to be taking a perspective that causes further division – but people can, and I’m sure will, take from it what they want.”
It’s a very careful answer but then, amid the mud, battles and the bloody revenge, it’s a careful film, one that feels very different from the rabble-rousing of Mel Gibson. The English kings – played by an excellent Stephen Dillane as the witheringly caustic Edward I and a startling turn from Billy Howle as his impetuous, brattish son – are certainly the villains of the piece, yet Robert himself (played by American star Chris Pine with impressive Scottish accent) is full of flaws and guilty conscience. Meanwhile, the film’s love interest is between Robert and an English lady, Elizabeth, played with real fight by rising star Florence Pugh, currently on our television screens in The Little Drummer Girl.
“I tried to focus on personalities not nationalities,” says Mackenzie. “That was how to get under the skin of a story, otherwise it’s just a lot of jingoism and that doesn’t make for a mature historical drama. I wanted to show that you can still take a distanced view of history even as similar passions continue to run high, 700 years on.”
2 1 (1) LOCH SHOT: director David Mackenzie surveys the landscape for another epic take. (2) AVENGING ANGEL: Kickass and Avengers star Aaron Taylor Johnson plays violent rebel leader James Douglas (3) EPIC HERO: The Bruce