Student Critic Elizabeth Bowie reviews
Robert the Bruce
(Richard Gray, USA, 2019)
Scottish history has been experiencing a cinematic moment of late. From Mary Queen of Scots to Outlaw King, perhaps the country's uncertain future in the light of Brexit is prompting us to reprise our most significant icons.
Charting the period the Scottish king spent as an outlaw before his triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn, the latest of these sword-and-sceptre epics is Richard Gray's Robert the Bruce. As riveting as this premise sounds, unfortunately, Gray’s production often falls as flat as an under-boiled clootie dumpling. What the film lacks in dynamic content, it could have made up for by adherence to a sense of style, and fidelity to its historical setting – but it did not.
The plot, if one could call it that, is scant and disappointing: named characters are cut down without uttering so much as a line of dialogue; the characters are clean and well-groomed despite living in the remotest of tree-covered mountains; and they all speak the Queen's English, even though we are in the 14th century Central Belt where drams would have been ordered in an assortment of Scots dialects, Gaelic, Norman French and even Latin.
Despite having a braw name to conjure with, Angus Macfadyen presents a lacklustre Bruce – saying little and conveying less. What lines he is allowed are restricted to calls for freedom and exhortations to kill the 'English pigs'. Ah, the limited vocabulary of Scotland (only) on screen! At times, the ham-fisted Braveheartiness of it all almost feels comical: Celtic flute music floats over pan-aerial shots of snowy Scottish peaks. There are even some stags.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to any enjoyment of the film is the accents. Predictably, many of the American actors speak with mumbled lyricism and patchy twangs that range from laughable to downright offensive. Surely we have moved past the days of lilting Jock Tamsonism and Whisky Galore? Robert the Bruce forces one to ask why there is such an aversion to casting Scottish actors in films about Scotland.
Playing a minor role as a slightly unhinged blacksmith, Kevin McNally is the film’s only saving grace. He is refreshing and provides some relief from the other overbearingly dramatic and self-obsessively serious other characters. At the very least, he is an authentic Scot.
As a film, Robert the Bruce tried, tried and tried again, sadly though, a steaming bowl of entrails does not a haggis make.