Robert The Bruce


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Robert The Bruce
"For all that there are premonitions, dreams, even a witch, in truth this is a film without magic" | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

Let's call it the John Carter Of Mars problem. If you know who the titular hero is then a film that bears their name must do them justice. If you don't, then it must explain who they are, and otherwise compel you to watch. Despite millions being thrown at the screen, audiences were not convinced by Pixar's Andrew Stanton's take on Burroughs' Barsoom, despite multitudinous previous attempts to film it. Superman Returns left audiences similarly unmoved, and the last son of Krypton has name recognition split across three identities. Robert The Bruce isn't the first, nor the Last King of Scotland, but a key part of his story is conflict.

Let's say that budgetary realities rather than a lack of ambition probably explain why this film does not feature the Battle of Bannockburn, but instead conjures a conflict in a croft kitchen. Let's give those credit too for the fact that much of the filming took place in Montana, though it's doubtful there was quite as much useful snow in Scotland either. Let's do those involved credit for producing a film - no easy feat - this is Richard Gray's seventh feature as director. He's worked with Richard Belgau on a short before, and Belgau co-writes with Angus Macfadyen (your eponymous protagonist) who's likely a familiar face. Not least because four and twenty years ago he was The Bruce in Braveheart.

This is not a sequel - for sure, if you're drinking along at home every time someone's name is mentioned, William Wallace will leave you blue in the face - and there's plenty of reference to previous parts of the conflict. This is much smaller in scale, almost domestic in its drama, and because of the willingness with which it throws around phrases like 'Scottish independence' and the presence of hashtags at the end of the credits it is almost impossible to read outwith the context of today's Scottish politics.

Which is a shame, because it's bad enough on its own merits. I didn't want to be picky when I saw someone hung from a scaffold gallows, the hinged door dropping away. I'll forgive stirrups because of health and safety. I'll not worry about a reward being described as "50 gold pieces", though that might refer to any number of sums - it's a lot, certainly, but there's a degree to which it indicates how desperate someone is to retain talent. I was even willing to forgive the presence of a certain root vegetable in a roast chicken dinner in a 12th century Scottish croft, but then, fresh from spider, freshly threatened, the once and future king asks "Why don't you take that knife and peel some potatoes for your mother?"

Robert's queen was an Elizabeth, but not that one. I don't want to get hung up on anachronisms - I was willing to forgive that trick beloved of film fighting where a swordsman (unequipped with dagger or buckler or ought in his off-hand) turns his back on his foe for a more powerful strike because the first time it happened it was in a story being told to a child. I don't think the sprung steel traps set for unknown prey were as much wrong as they were easy. I don't have too much issue with the words "Robert (The Bruce)" being spoken as much, if not more, as words emerge from Robert himself. I differ with this film in that I don't think Highlander's cliffside grave sites are an accurate reflection of regional burial, and that even despite the fact the Kurgan takes his name from a form of barrow. I'll even suggest that what seems guy close to an Ewok village of tied staves and archer's platforms is as close to guerilla warfare as they could manage in a fight between a sheriff who's nowhere near Nottingham and a widow and her children and a cave-fresh King.

Perhaps it's context - screened at the 2019 Edinburgh Film Festival it had plenty of company in the form of films without distribution or made for budgets as small, if not smaller, and I don't want to say 'live within your means' but I do mean to say 'use what you have.' Macfadyen's Bruce spends much of the money alone or unconscious, so much so that I wondered at times if there were stand-ins being used to save on flights. The process of aerial filming is cheaper now than it ever has been - a drone costs less per day than helicopters used to cost per hour - but when it's not clear if shots are establishing or padding it doesn't matter how pretty the Scottish countryside is.

The young cast are good - plenty of televisual veterans on either side, and though the accents seem to wander a little so did our protagonist. I have issues with the language - it's been more than a decade since Seachd, a feature film in Gaelic with mainstream distribution, and while films like Beats and Trainspotting are sometimes subtitled for audiences outwith Scotland all feel authentically located in place. There's no tartan here, but other parts of the Bruce feel no more authentic than a shortbread tin.

I do worry though when I see someone chop logs with a sword. That's the wrong tool for the job, and that seems to be what's happening here. I suspected I'd misheard when I heard someone say they'd "felt Robert [was somewhere]" but I doubt myself because this film left me so disheartened that I couldn't swear to it. For all that there are premonitions, dreams, even a witch, in truth this is a film without magic.

A colleague of mine at Eye for Film has a good rule for reviews - don't complain about what a film is not, or might have done. With the spider in the cave as well, however, the hermit of hermeneutics has company. This film could have done more, and didn't. What it does do it does passably, but not entertainingly, nor accurately. I'm not asking for Macbeth (Macfadyen's already given us his take, Macbeth Unhinged), but would this to an audience not Scottish play? I don't think so. Indeed, fear in fact that those who know the titular hero will feel that justice has not been done, the web of story has not been sung.

Small budgets require invention, and there's not much on display here. To reduce the scale of those formative Caledonian conflicts to a clearing at a croft was perhaps an opportunity, but it feels one squandered. In a film framed by stories, with a multi-legged legend, where there might have been something forged with allegorical weight, instead we get choppy fighting where the editing seems no more live than the blades. There's no edge here - sometimes literally - and with so much alluded to offscreen there just isn't enough on it.

There could be a more interesting angle on any of this. This is not the first filmed version of the story. There's last year's Outlaw King, and 1996's The Bruce, a film not saved from obscurity by the presence of Brian Blessed or Wolf off of Gladiators. Your actual historical Bruce tried five times before success, so by that arithmetic we're due to have another few (Mac)duffs laid on before we get there. Certainly this film, like a spider who cannot quite reach the beam, should serve as a reminder that however strong something may seem upon the web it matters not if it does not stretch.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2019
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The story of the Scottish king.
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