A TALE LIMITED BY
CINEMATIC BUDGETS AND NARRATIVE SCOPE
Before director Ridley Scott’s sword and sandals epic Gladiator roared into theaters at the dawn of the new millennium, actor / director Mel Gibson delved into Scottish history for 1995’s epic drama film Braveheart. The movie, which starred Gibson in the lead role as well as Sophie Marceau, Angus Macfayden, Patrick McGoohan, and Catherine McCormack, followed the exploits of William Wallace, a Scotsman warrior, who leads the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England. While the movie might have been criticized for historical inaccuracies, Braveheart received mostly positive reviews from both critics and moviegoers alike, who praised the various performances (including Gibson) as well as the directing, production values, battle sequences, and musical score. Overall, Braveheart grossed $210.4 million at the box office worldwide and gain several nominations during the award season, including winning five out of ten nominations at the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, and Best Sound Effects Editing. Even today…. the legacy of what Braveheart achieved is still being echoed in modern filmmaking storytelling. Now, twenty-five years after the release of Braveheart, Yellow Brick Films (as well as Signature Entertainment) and director Richard Gray present the semi-spin off / continuation of Scotland’s freedom in the movie Robert the Bruce. Does the movie live up to its 1995 predecessor or is a shallow and underwhelming experience to what has come before?
The year is 1306 and the battle for Scotland’s independence is taking its toll on Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfayden), who’s older and tried, trapped in a never-ending cycle of paranoia brough on by rival clans, including John Comyn (Jared Harris), who attempts to murder the Scot king during peace talks. Facing a never present bleak feature with a sizeable price on his head, Robert walks away from his duties, hoping to gain clarity as he dreams about the life he left behind. Instead of receiving a peaceful life of solitude, however, Robert is wounded by a band of battle-weary / disgruntled soldiers of his now disbanded army, left to die in the wild. Fortunately, his body is discovered by Morag (Anna Hutchison), a widow raising her son, Scot (Gabriel Bateman), and extended family members, Iver (Talitha Bateman) and Carney (Brandon Lessard). While recovering inside Morag’s remote home in the woods, Robert learns of her tragic story and watches as the young believe in the power of a free-Scotland, understanding his importance to the greater cause. However, Morag’s brother-in-law, Brandubh (Zach McGowan), who desires his dead brother’s wife, hears of rumors of an injured Robert in the area, looking to collect the wanted man and hoping to find fortune and glory to his name.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Twenty-five years…. wow…how much time flies by. I do remember seeing the trailer and all the promotional marketing displays for Braveheart when it came out back in 1995, but I was only ten years old at the time and, with the movie getting a R rating for its action violence, my parents didn’t think I should see it. So, I waited about two years and I remember that my family rented the movie from Blockbusters (god, I feel old by just saying that) and I do have to say that I kind of wished I saw the film in theaters (despite my tween age). The movie was really good and definitely showcased that “old school” Hollywood epics with a mixture of 90s action style of violence. The result is something that works, with giving Gibson plenty with work with and present a unique cinematic tale for him to play William Wallace and the journey he takes. While I haven’t watched Braveheart in quite a while, I have feeling (just writing about it) that I have to revisit it again sometime…. maybe even doing a possible “cinematic flashback” review of it for this blog.
This brings me to talking about Robert the Bruce, a 2020 drama feature film that can be taken as a semi-sequel to 1995’s Braveheart (in a certain way). With the effects of COVID-19 pandemic effecting the movie industry world during the several months of 2020, I began to search through the more lesser known 2020 movie releases, including ones that were to be released on digital format (skipping theaters altogether). One such film was Robert the Bruce, which looked kind of interesting from the synopsis and the movie trailer for the feature looked pretty decent. Of course, being a fan of Braveheart, I was definitely interesting to see this movie and “why” it kind of went under the radar. What do I mean? Well, as mentioned above, Braveheart has definitely been a well-known epic movie, so one would think that Hollywood would “tout” this feature around. However, the didn’t…. how curious? But that’s just my opinion. Anyways, I finally had the chance to see Robert the Bruce (I rented it Vudu) and took a chance to see if this movie was worthy sequel to the 1995 feature. And what did I think of it? Well, it was not bad, but still a little disappointing. Despite Macfayden returning the role and the feature working within its production budget, Robert the Bruce pales in comparsion to the expansive mid-90s epic feature that inspired it; feeling more and more like a DTV (direct-to-video) production than a well-planned out theatrical release. The intent is there for epic grandiosity, but that never plays out in the film’s runtime.
Robert the Bruce is directed by Richard Gray, whose previous directorial works include such movie like Mind Games, Sugar Mountain, and Broken Ghost just to name a few. Its quite clear that Gray isn’t yet the “household” name of famous movie directors out there currently, but I believe that he does do a good job in helming a project like this; making Robert the Bruce a more ambitious feature than his previous work. While the movie certainly does carry a certain prestige of semi-being a somewhat sequel to 95’s Braveheart (especially with Macfayden reprising the same character role), Gray approaches the film with the intent of movie being its own thing (somewhat separate from Braveheart), with the movie primarily focusing on Robert’s tale rather than the memory of character William Wallace. That’s not to say that the echoes and motifs of Braveheart and certainly does give a few “namedrops” of William Wallace here and there, but Gray makes the film its own and gives the platform for the character of Robert the Bruce to take centerstage on his own feature film. In a way, Gray scales back the violent and action romp that Braveheart emulated, which is a double edge sword really (more on that below), but gives a more personal touch to the project; focusing on the movie’s various characters and giving a more intimate look at Robert the Bruce’s struggle as a man (and not as a battle-hardened warrior / king). In this regard, Gray certainly does succeed in making the film adhere to the standard; creating a smaller feature that focuses on the humanity of the outlaw king and the undying courage that exists within Scotland’s common people. In short, Robert the Bruce is very much about Robert the Bruce story; existing on a very humanized level of leadership and doing what is right in the face of adversity and decisions. Its not the absolute best of cinematic storytelling, but I definitely can see what Gray and his team wanted to achieve.
In terms of presentation, Robert the Bruce is actually pretty good. Yes, it’s quite clear that the film’s limited budget hampers the feature (more on that below), but Gray and his team seem to smartly utilize the movie’s limitations and create the movie’s overall “look and feel” in a way that feels appropriate and well-deserved. Yes, it will not “wow” anyone out there or even be nominated for any awards or anything like that, but it certainly looks appealing the eyes in all the various areas that matter; conveying a convincing wintry locale of the Scottish medieval highlands (circa 1300s). Thus, the feature’s efforts in costumes designs, set decorations, production designs, and cinematography, do give a fairly decent job on all their respective parts. Additionally, the movie’s score, which was composed by Mel Elias, gives a good job in the melodic tone for the movie. Again, it’s not the best, but gets the jobs done in conveying emotional dramatics and / or tender dialogue moments.
As one can imagine, the narrative for the feature is rather stripped down to a very basic level, with the movie’s script being credited to Eric Belgau and Agnus Macfayden, with Macfayden coming up with the idea for the film’s story awhile back (i.e. a few years after the release of Braveheart). Thus, it really makes you wonder as to “why” it has taken Macfayden to make this particular story get off the ground? Anyways, the script for Robert the Bruce is definitely one that involves a scrutiny as it does have an interesting story to tell, but is it kept at a very “bare bones” level, which certainly limits the potential for the film. Coinciding with that, the film itself (for better or worse) is limited by it production and, while I do appreciate how the movie’s budget was utilized, one can not overlook how the smaller scale scope of the feature keeps the movie underdeveloped. Given the comparsion to how much Braveheart was considered an epic blockbuster (even by 90s standards), the film was grand and vast and definitely and the right amount scale it needed to tell the Scottish uprising of William Wallace. This movie, however, is definitely a step down from the 1995 feature and lends different take that lacks the grandiosity and epicenes of its predecessor. Because of this the movie has a difficult time in trying to convey the grandeur and overall bigness of how they want to tell Robert the Bruce’s tale, but the widened of the camera lens just makes the feels cheaper and stale. Plus, there isn’t a whole lot of action in the film and what is presented just seems like mild skirmishes. This, of course, makes the Robert the Bruce lacking in scope and makes the cinematic experience lesser than what it wants to be.
Additionally, Gray makes the movie a little bit underwhelming as the script keeps the feature very basic in story and narrative progression. In truth, the film’s story feels almost like an “interlinking” piece (a sort of bridge) narrative arc that doesn’t really have that dramatic impact. Basically, where the movie end, the story gets good and just lessen the satisfaction of what you just watched. Without saying cruel, Robert the Bruce feels very much like a DTV (Direct-to-Video) feature endeavor rather than a theatrical film release. It’s not a terrible production as they quality is there, but its hard not to look at the limited capacity of movie. Also, with the movie having a runtime of 124 minutes (two hours and four minutes), the movie is rather long, especially with the how the narrative is presented. Yes, I do agree that the movie has a lot of “moving parts” to its story, but the way of how it is all structured from both the directing side and script-handling side of things weighs the feature down a lot. This is especially noticeable during the film’s first act, which (of course) sets the stage of the film’s events and the like, but it is handling rather poorly and certainly takes its time to actually get to the point. Thus, there’s definitely several pacing issues throughout the movie of which the film can’t really overcome; bloating Robert the Bruce to a two-hour endeavor of which could’ve been done in a 90-minute projection.
The cast in Robert the Bruce is rather good, but, unfortunately, is rather limited (for the most part) do to the film’s scope and script handling. Of course, the acting talents are up to the task (majority of them), but the character written them or rather how they are presented in the story limits them a few times. Leading the charge for the feature is actor Angus MacFayden, who returns to reprise the character role of Robert the Bruce once again. While he’s been known for other roles such as in TURN: Washington’s Spies, We Bought a Zoo, and Equilibrium, many out there will remember Macfayden as Robert from Braveheart (I certainly do). Thus, it was quite fun (and a little bit joyful) to see the seasoned actor return to the character role that he hasn’t played in over two and half decades. To be truth, Macfayden does a really good job in playing Robert the Bruce in the movie; making sure that they character (like himself) is a little bit older and wiser, with the narrative giving him plenty of moments to build the character up in a likeable way. Yes, it is a bit conventional “hero’s journey” arc (i.e. a character who has lost his way a bit), but Macfayden makes the mold work for the movie and he certainly can act the part in a believable way.
In larger secondary roles, actress Anna Hutchison plays the character of Morag, the woman whose family takes an injured Robert the Bruce. Though Hutchison, known for her roles in Encounter, Sugar Mountain, and The Cabin in the Woods, is particular okay in the role, the character herself is rather bland and seems very much like generic female protagonist in fantasy-esque / medieval narratives. Likewise, actor Zach McGowan, known for his roles in Black Sails, The 100, and Dracula Untold, is effective as the movie’s antagonist character Branduh as he certainly looks and acts the part. However, the film’s script just simply makes him as a petty sheriff archetype, who’s is after money and power on a provincial level. Thus, the character of Branduh is rather a minor threat and kind of gets treated so. Who actually fares the best in the movie (to me personally) is the character of Scot, Morag’s young son and who is played by Gabriel Bateman. Known for his roles in Playmobil: The Movie, The Dangerous Book for Boys, and Child’s Play, Bateman gets perhaps the best storyline arc in the movie (a little bit more than the film’s title character of Robert) as you see him (as character) stray a fine line between boyhood and young adolescent as the character is quite complexed and deeper than one first imagines. Plus, Bateman certainly pulls off the role rather good and definitely holds his own against his more seasoned co-stars.
Everyone else, including actress Talitha Bateman (Annabelle: Creation and Love, Simon) as Iver, actor Brandon Lessard (Broken Ghost) as Carney, actor Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Das Boot) as Old Sean, actress Emma Kenney (The Conners and Shameless) as Briana, actor Daniel Portman (Game of Thrones and In the Cloud) as Angus McDonald, actor Diarmaid Murtaugh (Vikings and Dracula Untold) as James Douglas, and actor Jared Harris (The Crown and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) as John Comyn, is delegated to more supporting roles in the movie, with some having a little bit larger roles in very minor capacities. All of them do solid acting work in the movie…. even if the material that is given to them to play with is rather flimsy at times and not as well-rounded as they could’ve been.
Scottish history and mythmaking behind the historical figure of “The Bruce” returns to the silver screen in the film Robert the Bruce. Director Richard Gray’s latest film reopens the tale of Scotland’s fight for freedom; returning to Robert the Bruce’s struggle to free the lands and its people from England’s rule in a somewhat quasi-spiritual successor to 1995’s Braveheart epic. However, while the movie does utilize its budget resources, swift cinematics, costume designs, and a few good acting talents (again, its great to see Angus Macfayden reprising his role), one can simply feel disappointed by the feature’s limited scope and losing its grandiose epicenes, especially in its awkward pacing, slow mechanics, and unfilled potential of what the project could’ve been. To me, the film is not as terrible as some are making it out to be. However, when comparing the film against 1995’s Braveheart, the narrative / cinematics can’t do the film justice enough to warrant its presentation. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “iffy choice” as some viewers might give the movie a chance, while others probably won’t like it. It’s a really tossup. In the end, while the intent and heart are certainly in the right place, Robert the Bruce winds up being a rather forgettable semi-sequel endeavor that will very much likely fade into the background of theatrical release titles and merely engaging viewers to revisit Gibson’s Braveheart.
3.2 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice)
Released On: April 24th, 2020
Reviewed On: June 26th, 2020
Robert the Bruce is 124 minutes and is rated N/A, but i would say it is PG-13 for action violence