ROBERT THE BRUCE – Review
ROBERT THE BRUCE is a historical drama that follows up on BRAVEHEART, Mel Gibson’s epic about William Wallace, about the contender for the Scottish throne who finally won Scotland its independence and became its king. A legendary figure in Scottish history, Robert the Bruce was a great king, one known for his great heart and his devotion to his people.
This sequel of sorts to BRAVEHEART stars Angus Macfadyen, who played Robert the Bruce in that film, and is being released video-on-demand on various platforms starting April 24. The film has no connection to Mel Gibson or his film beyond the subject matter, and Angus Macfadyen, but it would be natural to expect this historical follow-up to also be an epic, filled battles and the sweep of history, in the style of Gibson’s film, or even just a biography of this legendary king. While there are a few fight scenes in ROBERT THE BRUCE, this is not an epic nor a biography but a drama focused on a relatively small portion of time, albeit a pivotal moment, and more on an ordinary Scottish family than the future king himself.
One of the film’s pleasures is its beautiful photography, with aerial shots of a rugged landscape that give the drama an epic gravitas as well as a stern beauty. Some American viewers might find the heavy Scottish accents challenging, and might want to opt for subtitles where available when viewing it. Yet, oddly, this is not a Scottish production but an American-made film, directed by Richard Gray, with a script written by Eric Belgau and Angus Macfadyen. The film does have some gorgeous photography, with beautiful sweeping vistas of a snowy mountainous landscape, but that footage was shot in Montana, not Scotland. Still, Angus Macfadyen is so good reprising his role as Robert the Bruce, and the drama so sincere in its affection for Scotland, one might overlook some of that.
Robert the Bruce is certainly a worthy subject for a film, not only as the king that won Scotland its independence but as a man Scots counted as a great king. A full biography of Robert the Bruce starring Angus Macfadyen would have been a wonderful thing, particularly given the less successful attempt of THE OUTLAW KING a couple of years back. Alas, this film is not that.
That is what it is not, let’s talk about what it is. ROBERT THE BRUCE is a thoughtful, heartfelt little drama that focuses more on the longing of the Scottish people for freedom, and their affection for Robert the Bruce, than on the future king himself. In fact, Macfadyen plays almost a supporting role, as the drama focuses more on this one rural Scottish family and their struggles. It is well-intentioned film, a drama with a lot of heart, with some nice performances. Without the expectations created by promoting it as a BRAVEHEART sequel, that it might be enough to win an audience.
The film opens strong, with a terrific scene of a pivotal confrontation between Robert the Bruce (Macfadyen) and his chief rival for the crown, John Comyn, played with swaggering bravura by Jared Harris. The two are supposed to talk truce but the treacherous Comyn tells Bruce he intends to kill him instead. Harris and Macfadyen are marvelous in this scene, playing off each other skillfully and creating an atmosphere that crackles with tension. As the two men who would be king cross swords, Comyn taunts the Bruce, saying he knows Bruce’s greatest fear: that he will never be a William Wallace. The jab clearly hits a nerve, but while Bruce is staggered, he still proves the better fighter, and bests his opponent.
This opening fight scene is electrifying, with terrific work by both Harris and Macfadyen, setting expectations high. The fight scene is narrated by, and alternates with scenes of, an impoverished young Scottish widow (Anna Hutchison) recounting the tale for her young son Scott (Gabriel Bateman) and other children in her care, like a bedtime fairy tale. The other children are orphans in the care of the widow Morag and her teen nephew Carney (Brandon Lessard) in her tiny rural home. The narrator is the widow of a soldier killed fighting for the Bruce, as was the father of the other children, meaning the tale is more than the stuff of myth for this family.
After the fight, Robert and a handful of supporters are forced to flee before Comyn’s army arrives. On the run from Comyn’s supporters and with a bounty from the English king on his head, Bruce and his few retainers hide out in the snowy Scottish wilderness. Doubts begin to consume the future king, leading to a betrayal that leaves Robert wounded and alone. The unconscious injured king is discovered by the children who had been listening to tales of him, and the family takes him back to their tiny woodland home to nurse him back.
The greatest strength of this drama is Angus Macfadyen. Historically, the events in this film take place only a couple of years after the death of Wallace but the film makes no mention of that and clearly more that a couple of years have passed since Macfadyen played the role in BRAVEHEART. But Macfadyen is so good in the role that the film is easily forgiven its departure from history. In fact, the added years give Macfadyen a particular gravitas which works in the film’s favor, as he broods over whether fate intends him to be king. Before being found by the family, the Bruce takes shelter in a cave, where he grapples with his fate, as a complex mix of emotions and pain play across the actor’s face.
Sadly, there is not enough of Macfadyen in this drama, as the king spends a lot of time unconscious and relatively little time grappling with his fate and self-doubts. Instead, the drama mostly gives us a tale of various family members, although none of these subplots or characters are as fully developed as one might hope. It turns out one of the Bruce’s faithless followers, Brandubh (Zach McGowan), is the brother of the widow’s husband, and turns up with clear thoughts of taking his brother’s place, as he also searches for the wounded king with hopes to collect the English bounty. There is a side story about the king’s sword, about a witch’s prophesy, but none of it really comes together as well as it might have. Patrick Fugit plays another of the former followers of the Bruce, a particularly nasty one, and Kevin McNally plays a small role as a skilled sword maker.
Overall the cast is good although it seems rather small, one of the things that makes the drama feels too constrained for its historic subject. While the film has its good point, is sincere and has a certain gravitas, one can’t escape the sense that it was hampered by a small budget, too much of which went for those beautiful helicopter shots of the windswept scenery. With a few more extras and a battle or even a larger skirmish, the film could have opened up a bit, had a little more historical epic feel, and delivered a drama more like what audiences might expect for such a legendary king. Hopefully someone will make that connection, and cast Angus Macfadyen in the larger role that this film should have given him but didn’t.
ROBERT THE BRUCE is a small but well-meant historic drama, focused on a brief if pivotal point in the life of Scotland’s first king. But the title, the references to BRAVEHEART, and having Angus Macfadyen reprise his role from that earlier film, all seem to promise far more than this modest drama delivers.
RATING: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars