April 24, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Richard Gray
Culture Representation: Taking place in Scotland in 1306, “Robert the Bruce” has an all-white cast of characters representing royalty to the working-class.
Culture Clash: The movie’s title character is an exiled king of Scotland, which wants independence from England and is at the brink of civil war over it.
Culture Audience: “Robert the Bruce” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of historical European movies, but the movie’s low budget and mediocre storytelling prevent it from being an epic classic.
When Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen played Robert the Bruce in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning 1995 epic “Braveheart,” he probably wouldn’t have predicted back then that he would have a starring role 25 years later in a movie about Robert the Bruce. Despite some impressive outdoor cinematography by John Garrett, “Robert the Bruce” is far from an Oscar-caliber film. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not very compelling.
The story is fairly simple: Robert the Bruce, an exiled rebel King of Scotland, has gone into hiding from the English army that’s out to get him for leading Scotland’s revolution against England. Clocking in at 122 minutes, “Robert the Bruce” (directed by Richard Gray) could definitely have cut about 30 minutes of the film, and it would’ve helped the mediocre screenplay (which was co-written by Macfadyen and Eric Belgau) become a lot less bloated.
People looking for majestic and suspenseful war battles with hundreds of people won’t find those kinds of scenes in this movie—and that’s probably because of the film’s low budget. Much of “Robert the Bruce” doesn’t take place on battlefields but instead takes place inside snow-covered, dilapidated houses in the woods, where Robert the Bruce spends time hiding out or recovering from attempted-murder injuries.
In the beginning of the film, there is a brief reference to William Wallace (the character that Gibson portrayed in “Braveheart”), when nobleman John Comyn III (played by Jared Harris), an opponent of Robert the Bruce, taunts him during a confrontation by saying: “You want the one thing that you cannot have: to be William Wallace, to be loved like he was, to be brave like him, to be free like him … How it must coil in your gut!”
Unfortunately, Harris (who’s a terrific actor in pretty much anything he does) has very limited screen time in the movie. His role in “Robert the Bruce” is essentially a cameo. But the Comyns and their allies continue to be a thorn in Robert’s side for the rest of the story.
The movie uses a somewhat unnecessary meta tactic of having a voiceover narrator in the beginning of the film, who’s eventually shown to be a woman telling the tale of Robert the Bruce to two children in a bedtime story setting. And then it turns out that the women and those children end up meeting Robert the Bruce and helping him with his cause. The narration aspect of the film kind of throws off the tone of the movie, and it doesn’t work well at all.
Before Robert the Bruce encounters the family that plays a pivotal part in the story, the movie shows betrayals among the small group of Scottish rebels who have stayed with Robert and have planned to go to Norway with him. There are some violent fights, Robert get seriously injured, and he barely escapes with his life.
In addition to the English army that is after Robert, some Scots who are enticed by the financial rewards of helping the English also become Robert’s enemies. One of these Scots is Brandubh (played by Zach McGowan), who leads a group of bounty hunters who are looking to capture and kill Robert.
The woman and children who find Robert almost dead in the snow are the same family seen earlier in the film in the storytelling scene. They are widow Morag Macfie (played by Anna Hutchinson), her orphaned teenage nephew Carney (played by Brandon Lessard), her orphaned teenage niece Iver (played by Talitha Bateman) and her 11-year-old son Scot (played by Gabriel Bateman). The family knows who Robert the Bruce is when they find him barely alive, so they immediately bring him to the family home to help him recover from his injuries.
It isn’t long in the movie before Robert has recovered enough to train Carney on sword fighting (in a scene that is very reminiscent of Obi Wan-Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”), while Carney teaches Scott some archery. (Of course, these skills will come in handy later in the inevitable final showdown scene.) Robert’s physical recovery is so good that he even starts dancing a jig with Morag. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
Macfadyen’s performance as Robert the Bruce is mostly stoic and serviceable. Viewers don’t really get to see a lot of the character’s leadership skills, because Robert the Bruce is isolated in hiding or recovering from injuries for much of the movie. The rest of the actors get the job done well enough, and the movie’s costume design is passable, but there’s nothing about this movie that’s award-worthy. And some of the dialogue lines are just plain corny. At one point, John utters to the family who’s helped him: “I see now in your eyes what Scotland can be.”
“Robert the Bruce” can certainly find an audience with people who feel compelled to check out any movie related to Scottish history. For everyone else, the film is worth watching if you don’t mind seeing an inferior spinoff to “Braveheart.”
Screen Media Films released “Robert the Bruce” on digital and VOD on April 24, 2020.