Along with William Wallace, Robert the Bruce is regarded as one of Scotland’s most legendary heroes. Unlike William Wallace, the Bruce was actually King of Scotland after forcing the English out of their lands. Yet it is Wallace who famously received the big screen treatment in the Hollywood-extravaganza mess that is Braveheart. Robert the Bruce in that film was a small part played by Angus Macfadyen, but now he seems to be stealing the limelight, with last year’s Outlaw King centring around him as well as this film. Except Robert the Bruce isn’t really about him, but about Scotland and its people. This kind of melodramatic swooning for the film’s setting can be a distraction in what is an otherwise impressive and stirring drama.
Robert the Bruce (Macfayden, returning to the role) is on the run from those on both sides of the border out for his head. With nowhere else to go, he finds refuge with a small family who treat his wounds and (inevitably for the sake of storytelling) influence his future moves. They are all not safe however, as a mob from the nearby village is out for the 50 gold pieces on offer if they bring in the fallen king’s body.
The opening half hour can be difficult to get into, but the film stirringly unfurls just before Robert discovers the family, and the transformation in his beliefs is obvious. Tense, weighty conversations which risk collapsing into brooding feel consequential and poignant, and as the relationship between Robert and the family grows the film realises its greatest strength; being a low-key human drama.
This is a very different film to Braveheart, although with William Walace name-dropping from the word go, you can’t help but see this as a spiritual sequel. Robert the Bruce is slower, more introspective, and admirably refuses to bask in the glory of victory. There is violence however, and when it comes, director Richard Gray manages it fantastically with brutal set pieces, throwing you into the fury. The fights are normally short-lived, but nasty, capturing the brutality of Robert and Scotland’s situation.
The script, co-written by Macfayden along with Eric Belgau, does things with a heavy heart, be it rallying troops into battle or retreating into a cave. A sombreness stalks the film that, combined with some carefully worded dialogue and interactions, results in some compelling sequences. The film encourages you to get behind the Bruce, but not blindly. It is very much rooted in the context of the present day with the parallels made to the modern Scottish Independence drive, but this is not propaganda. It is a more thoughtful investigation with people, not nations, at its core.
The long shots of Scotland’s landscape are perhaps just one too many. They are pretty to look at but don’t drive the story forward at a natural-feeling pace. The film stretches itself out just a little too much. This is harder to take when it doesn’t take the same kind of narrative and thematic gambles of Mary Queen of Scots, or the creative ones of Macbeth, with Robert the Bruce feeling a bit reserved by comparison. What it does, however, it does well. It is not quite as stirring as it wants to be, but Gray’s picture brims with passion and is still as accomplished as any historical drama worth watching.
Robert the Bruce comes to UK cinemas 28 June 2019.