Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Angus Macfadyen is Robert the Bruce

Some actors are destined to revisit the same character in vehicles produced by very different filmmakers, like Peter Ustinov portraying Hercule Poirot or Bela Lugosi as Dracula. It turns out Angus Macfadyen will be similarly identified with Robert the Bruce. When he played the Scottish icon in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart, the focus was on the Bruce’s tragic failings. However, he would redeem himself. That is why he is considered a “national” hero. It is understandable why Macfadyen would want to return to the role to tell that tale, but this isn’t that film. Instead, the future king’s literal winter-in-the-wilderness is the subject of Richard Gray’s Robert the Bruce, co-written by Macfadyen, which releases this Friday on VOD.

When the Bruce tells his army at the end of Braveheart: “you died with Wallace, now die with me,” it is not exactly the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but it was appropriate. Die they did. As Gray’s film opens, the Bruce has been crowned king of Scotland, but only a remnant of his army remains. The common people revere him as their king and a symbol of Scottish independence, but most of the powerful clan leaders are aligned with England. Recognizing reality, the king disbands his army, but that leaves him vulnerable to turncoats out to collect the bounty on his head.

Robert the Bruce will be harder to kill than they expect, but he still suffers serious wounds at their hands. Fortunately, the king finds refuge in the mountain cottage home of Morag and her children, but it puts them in an awkward position. She is the widow of a soldier who died fighting with the Bruce, but her brother-in-law is the local sheriff, who is loyal to England and highly motivated to collect the reward for the king’s capture.

There is some hack-and-slash action right at the start, when Robert the Bruce has his infamous duel with John Comyn, and then again during the climax, but there is a lot of talk and farm-work in between. Frankly, the Bruce spends a good quarter of the film hiding in a cave. Admittedly, doing justice to the Battle of Bannockburn could have been understandably beyond the film’s budgetary means, but it concentrates on a decidedly odd period of the king’s life.

Still, Macfadyen finds grandness in the Bruce’s redemption, despite the film’s relatively small scale. It actually helps that he is older and more grizzled. In terms of tone, it is a lot like the Unforgiven of Scottish swashbucklers, but Macfadyen and co-screenwriter Eric Belgau still invite us to believe in the possibility of justice and heroism.

Macfadyen really is terrific as Robert the Bruce and so is Anna Hutchison playing the resilient Mortag, but a subplot involving her bratty son Scot gets tiresome quickly. Jared Harris is also entertainingly villainous, in an appropriately flamboyant way in his brief but pivotal appearance as Comyn (good enough to get his name on the one-sheet). However, the rest of the combatants are essentially interchangeable stock figures.

In some ways, Robert the Bruce delivers rewarding payoffs, especially for Braveheart fans, but it could have been much more. It is more than a footnote, but it is not an epic either (despite the sweeping vistas lensed by cinematographer John Garrett). Mostly just recommended admirers of Braveheart, Jack Whyte novels, and the legendary king, Robert the Bruce releases this Friday (4/24) on VOD platforms.