Robert the Bruce (United States, 2019)

April 25, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Robert the Bruce Poster

Robert the Bruce could be seen as a sort-of unofficial sequel to 1995’s Braveheart; in both films, Angus Macfadyen plays the role of the 14th century King of Scotland. The new movie, which Macfadyen co-wrote, transpires between one and two years after the conclusion of Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning production (which means that a 56-year old actor is playing a 30-something character). Neither movie adheres rigorously to what’s known of the historical record; there’s plenty of imagining going on, although it’s significantly more enjoyable in the bloody, rousing epic than the meandering follow-up. Robert the Bruce is too long by at least a half-hour for the surprisingly slight tale it has to tell.

For roughly the first half of Robert the Bruce, the movie is content to introduce us to the small group of fictional secondary characters who will factor into the story of Robert’s decision to make a second attempt to rule Scotland. This family – an attractive widow named Morag (Anna Hutchinson), her son Scot (Gabriel Bateman), her nephew Carney (Brandon Lessard), and her niece Iver (Talitha Bateman) – aren’t the most compelling quartet. The villain of the piece is Morag’s late husband’s brother, Brandubh (Zach McGowan), who’s eager to cash in on the bounty that the King of England has placed on Robert’s head.

Robert the Bruce spends far too much time with these people while the injured title character is either hiding in a cave watching a spider spin its web or lying insensate on Morag’s bed after the children find him face-down in the snow. His relationship with the family is stilted; it doesn’t help that young actor Gabriel Bateman has difficulty expressing emotion. The movie eventually kicks into high gear with a few well-executed action/fight scenes in which Bruce and his rescuers face off against Brandubh and his gang of ruffians. However, perhaps because of budgetary limitations, we don’t see either of Robert’s storied military victories. (The Battle of Loudoun Hill in 1307 and The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.) It feels like a bit of a cheat; having captions at the end of the film tell of Robert’s triumphs is more than a little disappointing. Most people seeing the film are likely expecting more than a minor skirmish with less than a dozen participants on either side.

The movie features some interesting casting choices, although most of the better-known names don’t have a lot of screen time. Patrick Pugit, Melora Walters, and Kevin McNally all make appearances. Jared Harris plays John Comyn, who was infamously murdered in a church by Robert, but he’s limited to a couple of scenes. Macfadyen aside, most members of the cast are not from Scotland. This results in accents that range from passable to comically bad.

Watching Robert the Bruce, I was incongruously reminded of The Last Days of Patton. The 1986 made-for-TV movie had little to recommend it beyond George C. Scott’s return to his most famous role. The story was weak, the pacing was poor, and the overall sense was there was no reason for it to have been made. With Robert the Bruce, similar comments could be made, although Macfadyen’s title character isn’t in the same league as Scott’s WWII general. Nevertheless, he’s the best thing about Robert the Bruce. A better choice for history buffs might be Chris Pine’s The Outlaw King, which debuted on Netflix a couple of years ago and can still be watched for subscribers to the service. Its historicity is equally questionable but its entertainment value is better.

Robert the Bruce (United States, 2019)

Director: Richard Gray
Cast: Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchinson, Zach McGowan, Gabriel Bateman, Talitha Bateman, Brandon Lessard, Patrick Fugit
Home Release Date: 2020-06-02
Screenplay: Eric Belgau, Angus Macfadyen
Cinematography: John Garrett
Music: Mel Elias
U.S. Distributor: Screen Media Films
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2020-04-24
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Genre: Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1