A noble passion project from Angus Macfadyen
I’m going to be straight: Everything I think I might know about Scotland I learned from watching Braveheart some 2 dozen times as a teen and young adult. I imagine I’m not alone in this as Braveheart is an iconic film for my generation, and one that has largely endured as well. It inspired and thrilled most who watched it, but it probably didn’t yield a generation of Scottish history scholars. And so, having now watched Robert The Bruce (in which Angus Macfadyen once again plays the character he played in Braveheart) and glanced through The Bruce’s wikipedia page, it’s safe to say that this review will not be one backed up by deep historical knowledge or research, but rather an assessment of the film itself and its distant relationship to Braveheart.
To get it out of the way: Robert The Bruce is good! As a clear passion project of Macfadyen that I’d heard rumblings about online for many years, it’s satisfying to see something so personal as this cross the finish line, make it out to a wide international audience, and ultimately be a film worth all of that investment. Macfadyen co-wrote, produced, and starred in the project, so this is very clearly his baby. And it makes sense. He’s a top notch character actor who has some 80+ acting credits to his name. But he’s not exactly a household name with greenlight star power. That said, Robert The Bruce is likely the most iconic character he’s ever played on screen and that character absolutely had more story left to tell. Not only that, but Braveheart won a whole mess of Oscars so the potential for an unrelated sequel of sorts that could follow the events of Robert The Bruce’s life after the events of Braveheart, as portrayed by the same actor who played him in Braveheart… well… that pitch was enough to sell me on checking the film out, I can tell you that much.
Wisely, Robert The Bruce tells a very intimate and focused tale. Again, I’m no scholar on the subject, so I’m entirely unaware of what kind of historical veracity or folkloric authenticity either film has. But Braveheart’s closing credits told me that William Wallace’s noble death spurred on a revolution and that Robert The Bruce would go on to route the British and win independence for Scotland. If you’re looking for a rousing portrayal of the Battle of Bannockburn here in Robert The Bruce… go ahead and look elsewhere. In fact, for the action movie version of Robert The Bruce’s story, look no further than Netflix’s Outlaw King. That’s a film that has no connection to Braveheart but feels more tonally of a piece with the action epic. Macfadyen goes the character study route, to his film’s benefit.
In Robert The Bruce we meet our character broken after years of fighting against the British to no avail. He sends his troops home and wanders off into the countryside alone and defeated. Yet some of his desperate men attack him in an attempt to collect the bounty on his head. Injured and alone, a widow and her family take in Robert The Bruce and reignite his passion for his country through their authentic spirit and bravery. That’s pretty much the movie. It’s a leader at a crossroads, learning hard lessons and walking a mile in the shoes of those he’s meant to lead. It’s a genuine family with history and heartbreak of their own, struggling mightily to survive in a harsh 1306 world. They are Scotland, if you will. Hell, the main kid in the family is even named Scot!
There’s a lot of really great drama and humanity that can be wrung from a set up as simple as this, and Macfadyen and Eric Belgau’s script benefits from focusing on that. There’s no doubt that the final film can veer towards feeling on the nose, but ultimately it just works. That’s in no small part thanks to a strong cast, some gorgeous cinematography and on location shooting (Montana subbing for Scotland), and the aforementioned script that gives our small cast of characters plenty to do during one long, cold winter. The film’s second lead is Anna Huchison (also a producer on the film) as Morag, the rugged widow forging a life on the outskirts of town with three children (not all her own) in her care. Morag’s family is well fleshed out, with each child having come under her care through different circumstances. Scotland is a scattered place when this story is told and Morag is taking a big risk sheltering and aiding The Bruce when some would prefer his head on a pike. As he heals, he listens, recognizes the pain his own battles have caused his countrymen, and recognizes his individual responsibility to honor the sacrifices his people have made.
Honestly, at this time in our collective history, Robert The Bruce sat well with me because it’s the story of a leader brought low by his own pride who owns his past mistakes, remembers his roots through gratitude born of desperation, and goes on to lead his people having learned from them. This is almost certainly a more charitable portrayal of the man than is historically accurate. But it’s a tale about the kind of leadership we need right now. We need leaders who listen to us, who value the lives of their subjects, and who mourn the dead who have sacrificed to make our society what it is.
As I mentioned, the film looks pretty great. Beautiful outdoor vistas are frequent and the film greatly benefits visually from its on location shooting. This is well reflected here in the Blu-ray. You also get a feature commentary track and a behind the scenes featurette which is just enough to make the Blu-ray a solid recommend over just renting this one. I don’t know that I’ll revisit the film often but I’ll probably hold on to the disc as a companion to Braveheart in my library.
And I’m Out.
Robert The Bruce is available on Blu-ray/DVD June 2nd, 2020 from Screen Media