It starts with a close-up of a candle and ends with flaming debris being flung at a castle wall by a catapult — in terms of kicking off a period-piece epic with a single unbroken shot, you could say that Outlaw King sets a high bar. This serpentine opening sequence establishes that, in 1304, England’s King Edward seizes power over Scotland after an eight-year-rebellion; the regent forces the country’s lords, including former heir-to-the-throne Robert Bruce (Chris Pine), to bend the knee; his son, Prince Edward II (Billy Howle), has an ax, or rather a sword, to grind with this particular Scotsman; another lord, James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), desperately wants revenge for this travesty; and that the king is willing to destroy a perfectly good fortress in a gratuitous display of power. The camera follows these men in and out of tents, circling them as they clang blades together, darting next to them as they approach and reproach their nation’s new leader. Nine minutes, no cuts.
There’s a danger in fetishizing such filmmaking virtuosity, not to mention that it’s a risky gambit to start things off this way: How do you keep people from talking about nothing but your insanely ambitious, technically complex set-up? (Answer: You give your sex-symbol leading man a full-frontal moment.) Yet it’s astounding how, in one fell swoop, director David Mackenzie gives you the foundation for almost everything you need to know going into this historical drama: the relationships, the stakes, the level-headedness of some and volatility of others, the blend of magnificence and muddiness that will be this epic’s stock-in-trade, the fact that Pine still looks matinee-idol handsome even when saddled with the worst glam-rock shag ‘do in centuries. Once you’ve firmly established who the players were and why Scotland’s Rebellion 2.0 was inevitable, it’s a lot easier to get folks invested in your dirtier, scrappier, more-impalement-friendly version of Braveheart.
The freedom fighter from that Oscar-winning film makes two brief cameos here, in fact — first as a ripped limb nailed to a post in a public square and then as a head stuck on a pike. Bruce knows that compliance or death are the choices now, which is why he counsels his countrymen to keep calm. Even his new wife Elizabeth (Lady Macbeth‘s Florence Pugh), who’s coupled with him as part of an arranged peacekeeping deal between the powers, understands the necessity of playing along. Soon, however, the taxation and oppression get to be too much for him; after dispatching a rival and getting a go-ahead from the church, Robert the Bruce declares himself King of the Scots. This means war. It also means that Prince Edward will counter by grabbing two dead birds by their necks and screaming, in what is the single most pleasurably delirious line reading of the year, “BY THESE SWANS I VOW TO AVENGE THIS MURDEROUS INSULT TO GOD!!!”
What follows is a less an old-school epic and more of a middle-school one, i.e. the sort of violent, gore-heavy history lessons marinated in guts and grandiosity that we got in between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s (see not just Braveheart but Gladiator, Troy, 300, Kingdom of Heaven — you could even count the D-Day assault in Saving Private Ryan). The Scottish rebels literally get medieval on folks’ asses. “I know you as men,” Bruce says to his comrades-in-harm, “but today, we are beasts.” Flaming arrows fly through the air, arterial spray splashes everywhere and troops fall back so another army can ride their horses into pits of wooden spikes. Metal clashes on metal or, more often, on vulnerable flesh and bone. Mackenzie has previously staged everything from bank robberies (Hell or High Water) to prison riots (Starred Up), but his battle scenes here are miniature spectacles involving men with beards, chain-mail and near-masochistic levels of pain. (Not for nothing are several Game of Thrones veterans included in the cast.) Death is nasty, brutish and short on these battlefields. It’s also highly cinematic.
The filmmaker also has a history of including some very warped eroticism into his films, from a genuinely disturbing scene in Young Adam (2003) involving custard, condiments and spanking to the manic rutting throughout his haywire epidemic drama Perfect Sense (2011). So it’s a relief here when Bruce and his headstrong Queen indulge in a passion that’s practically chaste and not distracting, as well as featuring actors with chemistry. Pine and Pugh sync up well onscreen, especially in their early scenes together as they feel each other out. They begin to admire each other’s bravery, ideology and wisdom regarding when to hold back — and when to rush once more unto the breach. Both are charismatic, swoonworthy; Pine, especially, reminds you here why he is movie-star material. Plus Mackenzie, to his credit, knows that you can’t go wrong when you have two people kiss in silhouette while a camera spins Vertigo-style around them. That, and the notion that emphasizing a sense of personal connection — not just love of country, but love itself — can ground a sweeping story even when it stumbles.
And Outlaw King does stumble. Its tension-and-release game is not exactly tight, and its dramatic rhythms have a way of losing the beat. Some set pieces are seamless edited, while other scenes feel as if they were jaggedly cut with Robert the Bruce’s personal broadsword. Few actors can make grinning through a blood-splattered mug as screen-worthy as Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but when he goes into berserker mode in his old home, we dare you not to think of a similar siege in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Other than that bliss-inducing shriek about swans and vengeance (seriously, it’s this-level great), Howle’s tendency to bellow his lines occasionally suggests a volume knob stuck on 11.
Still, this look back at Scotland’s fight for independence scratches not one but two itches. It’s the sort of big-scope, big-gesture movie that, even if you don’t have the advantage of seeing it on a big screen — that’s Netflix’s logo on the front — makes you pine (sorry) for the days when studios invested in actual epics instead of franchises. It is also a story about a corrupt king who prefers to enforce his rule through intimidation, division and fear rather than respect — and who is met by a resisting force that ultimately endures and survives to the bitter end. You don’t just get something filling a past multiplex-niche hole. You also get a major act of contemporary wish fulfillment.