A loose continuation of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, with Angus Macfadyen reprising his titular role as Robert the Bruce, Richard Gray’s spin-off takes place after the death of William Wallace but before the Battle of Bannockburn — both depicted in the 1995 classic. Reeling from a string of defeats, Robert the Bruce disbands his loyal troops only to find himself on the run from the traitors among them, tempted by the price on his head. Enter Morag (Anna Hutchinson), a kindly widow whose husband gave his life for The Bruce’s cause; her young son Scot (Gabriel Bateman) encounters the injured king while hunting deer with his sister (Talitha Bateman) and cousin (Brandon Lessard), and together the family of crofters resolves to nurse him back to health, despite the threat posed by Morag’s bounty-hunting brother-in-law (Gianni Capaldi).
Considering the film was co-written by Macfadyen, for whom Robert the Bruce has long been a passion project, in gestation for twenty years, it’s remarkable that he has given himself so little to say. Reintroduced in flashback, as Morag dramatises his fateful duel with John Comyn (Jared Harris) for the entertainment of her sleepy children and the needs of the framing device, The Bruce seems quite happy to let everyone else do the talking. It’s an odd decision, in part because Macfadyen is one of the few Scots actors to appear onscreen, but mostly as he is supposed to be the star. No sooner has he appeared in earnest, to announce the end of his rule, than he’s unceremoniously hit with an arrow and left to recover in a cave. The “pretender” king forgotten, director Richard Gray concerns himself with his loyal subjects instead.
Oddly, these scenes of familial life — of a mother fetching water for her three children — are where the film is at its most compelling. The accents might be trying, though thankfully never quite as terrible as in Hutchinson’s opening narration, but the performances are strong and the relationships convincing. The children are particularly well acted, with real-life siblings Gabriel and Talitha effectively transposing their familiarity and rivalry to the big screen. Morag is haunted by a premonition supposedly predicting Scot’s death at Robert the Bruce’s side, echoing that of his father, and Hutchinson really sells this inner conflict as she seeks to reconcile her desire to give her late husband’s death meaning and her determination to protect her family from further loss. The fatherless family is clearly meant to mirror the kingless country, forced to fight for control of its own destiny.
While it’s easy to see how Morag and her brood might inspire Robert the Bruce, however, it’s difficult to determine how this inspiration might be reciprocated. Even when his character returns to health Macfadyen fails to muster much in the way of screen presence; Comyn’s provocation that Robert the Bruce could never match up to William Wallace is possibly a little close to the bone. Perhaps he’s feeling a little homesick, displaced even — the actor’s self-penned propaganda lost on an otherwise indifferent Montanan film set. Scotland looks out of place in its own movie, with scenes shot on location at Eilean Donan Castle and on the Isle of Skye raising eyebrows rather than inspiring awe. Even The Bruce’s legendary encounter with a spider — said to be the real reason he returned to the fray — stands out, the scenes significance lost on anyone not already familiar with the story.
Despite following in the footsteps of Braveheart, and covering much of the same ground as Netflix’s Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce eschews big battles and epic romance in favour of a more intimate familial drama that may pique your interest but is unlikely to inspire your inner patriot. It’s a handsome film, and is beautifully scored by Mel Elias with just the right prominence given to the bagpipes, but at over two hours in length you need something more. You need a hero you can believe in and rally behind. What you don’t need is a pretender.