Robert the Bruce is a figure not nearly given enough credit for his achievements. This is likely because Scottish independence was effectively lost in the 1600s and has yet to be regained, despite the reasonably straight forward and democratic way of attaining it. Many see him as a figure of inspiration, but to others, he’s a symbol of a lost cause. That has not tarnished Angus Macfadyen’s connection with him.
I say connection because in 1995 Macfadyen portrayed The Bruce for the first time, and as of 2019, 24 years later, he’s reprised his role in a script he wrote with Eric Belgau. This is obviously no coincidence, there’s a connection there, something about the courage, and aims and desires of the old king tie him to Macfadyen. The aura of all those feelings and how they all made up one great man is what the film “Robert the Bruce” is all about.
First and foremost, I must echo a common sentiment about this movie; it is slow. The film’s director Richard Grey shows almost no interest in echoing the explosiveness of this film’s spiritual successor Braveheart. Instead, he opts to make a far more personal and introspective experience, focusing mainly on how a family facing hard times inspires a wavering Robert to pick up his sword and recommence his fight for Scottish independence.
There is intrigue based on the premise alone, the idea of this legendary leader wavering in his darkest hour, but the execution highlights a lack of substance. About 40 minutes in the film loses its way entirely and gets more bogged down in the family looking after Robert, and not on the title character himself. Morag (Anna Hutchison), is a single mother whose husband died fighting for Robert, she finds herself raising three children with no desire to remarry and every night she prays for Scottish for a revolutionary victory. She’s not an altogether bad character, but the shallowness of her children, two of whom she isn’t even the biological mother of for no discernible reason other than to overcomplicate the script, is unforgivable. Iver (Talitha Eliana Bateman) in particular could be taken out of the film entirely to little impact.
The longer this went on, the worse the film got, but thankfully there is somewhat of a saving grace. Angus Macfadyen waited years to get this film made, and to his credit delivers some of the most effectual and emotional work of his career. The interactions between Morag’s son Scot (Gabriel Bateman) and a wounded King Robert are the best in the film. Despite Scots youth, Macfadyen becomes so convincingly vulnerable in their discourse, and the sense of regret and failure becomes completely clear and harrowing.
Another strength is the beautiful settings which are a credit to the film. Especially considering the shoot didn’t take place in Scotland. Rather, it is Montana that takes centre stage in this Scottish period piece, and while that is unfortunate, it does a more than admiral job. Thanks in no small part to the, admittedly tame, but excellent cinematography by John Garrett.
All in all, though Robert the Bruce is a disappointment. When it’s so closely linked to such an epic picture and story, it needed to be epic in stature, and that just wasn’t possible on this budget. For every bit of dismemberment in Braveheart, we have a solemn piece of regret here, and it just doesn’t inspire the same powerful emotions. No, this film didn’t need to be violent, but it did need to do something to evoke the sensation William Wallace’s story does so effortlessly.
Robert the Bruce allows Angus Macfadyen to reprise the role he was born to play. However, despite his fine work, the film fails to be the sum of its parts.
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