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ROBERT THE BRUCE (2020) review

April 15, 2020

 

written by: Eric Belgau and Angus Macfadyen
produced by: Kim Barnard, Andrew Curry, Nick Farnell, Richard Gray, Anna Hutchison, Angus Macfadyen, Cameron Nugent
directed
by: Richard Gray
rated: Not Rated (violent content equivalent to an R)
runtime: 123 min.
U.S. release date: April 24, 2020 (Amazon Prime & VOD) 

 

“You cannot stop your boy from becoming a man. Nothing’s certain, not the future, not even the present. You have to let go.”

 

Despite its director and star’s current reputation, 1995’s “Braveheart” was a moment of triumph for Mel Gibson, bringing him into the realm of respected actors turned directors. While the film certainly played fast and loose with history, it turned what could have been a lecture on history into crowd-pleasing ultra-violent entertainment. That has more or less been Gibson’s bag since then, though he didn’t seem all that eager to return to this particular story—likely because it had a pretty firm ending for his character.

The same cannot be said for his co-star Angus Macfadyen, however, who has spent the better part of the two decades attempting to tell the story of his character, Robert the Bruce. The first king of Scotland has certainly had his fair share of film adaptations, most recently courtesy of Netflix’s “Outlaw King” starring Chris Pine in the role. The new film “Robert the Bruce,” however, gives audiences an interesting new view on a man whose story has been told countless times.

 

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Rather than lionizing Robert the Bruce as some superhuman warrior in the way “Braveheart” did with his countryman William Wallace, the film seeks to bring a larger than life figure down to a very human level. Gibson is nowhere to be found this time around, though I’ll leave that up to the individual in determining whether that’s good or bad. Instead, the film has a much more somber and contemplative feel brought by director Richard Gray, something Gibson scarcely has time for as a director.

Gray and co-writers Eric Belgau and Macfadyen establish a two-pronged narrative that doesn’t really come together until right around the halfway mark of the film. The Bruce’s exploits are relayed in the form of folk tales told to a trio of children by a peasant woman named Morag (Anna Hutchison), whose home our hero finds his way to after being injured by bounty hunters. This human perspective is something missing from “Braveheart,” which preferred its heroes writ large and imposing like the statues honoring them hundreds of years after their deaths. “Robert the Bruce” is, in many ways, analogous to Damien Chazelle’s masterfully underrated “First Man,” which wasn’t interested in the many heroic deeds of Neil Armstrong, but rather how those heroic deeds impacted an otherwise normal human being.

 

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Idol worship can be a dangerous thing on film as it makes never allows an audience to reckon with the humanity at the core of these great historical figures. While some viewers will come away from “Robert the Bruce” bemoaning the lack of cheeky battlefield antics and heads being obliterated by steel weapons, they may instead come away with a deeper appreciation for human beings to conjure up superhuman strength within them. The time and effort put into bringing Robert the Bruce down to earth, so to speak, may not be to everyone’s liking, but those willing to stick with this patient and measured film will find much to admire.

Economy is the name of the game with “Robert the Bruce,” which never looks or feels cheaply made, but rather scaled down and economical. One key example of this economy comes in the form of Jared Harris‘ one scene cameo as John Comyn into a multi-scene appearance by splitting up the legendary 1306 battle between him and the Bruce in the Chapel of Greyfriars Monastery. Also, the filmmakers decision to shoot in snowy Montana—far from the Scottish climes in which the story is set—helps to give the land the feeling of sparseness it surely had in the 14th century.

As one of the film’s writers, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Macfadyen had a hand in paring down his dialogue. Here, Robert the Bruce comes off as an “actions speak louder than words” kind of leader, often on his own. However, in the company of Morag’s family and the handful of men who don’t betray him, we get glimpses of the gregarious leader he was, making it easy to see why so many placed their undying faith in him.

 

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The cast is perhaps the most uneven element of the film, with many American actors like “Almost Famous” star Patrick Fugit and Melora Walters of “Magnolia” wavering in their stalwart attempts to pull off a Scottish brogue. New Zealand native Hutchison—who also served as one of the film’s producers—fairs much better, at least to this reviewer’s untrained ear, delivering her narration with an emotion that doesn’t betray her natural accent. Overall, the good certainly outweighs the bad and with a cast that’s not nearly as sprawling as that of “Braveheart,” there are no truly rotten apples spoiling the bunch.

This brings us back to “Braveheart” and the question of where this film sits in relation to that one. It’s not really a sequel and calling it a spin-off seems to indicate some modicum of the diminishing returns often associated with that hyphenate. Instead, this is more of a somber meditation on the impact of that film and the very real implications of the violent lives led by these men. While it’s hard to say what the ultimate destiny of “Robert the Bruce” is, it sits in a much better place with an audience of grown-ups clamoring for some humanity in their historical epics than its predecessor.

No, “Robert the Bruce” likely won’t be quoted or parodied or memed in the way Gibson’s film was, but that doesn’t seem to be its intent. Macfadyen returned to this world, this character, and this story because he clearly had a passion for its telling, and that passion is evident in every frame of this film. While common wisdom states that good intentions don’t always yield good outcomes, they can often elevate an otherwise decent film into something truly good if those intentions are pure enough. I’m happy to report that “Robert the Bruce” has more than just good intentions on display. It’s got the heart and the talent to back up those intentions.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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