The best thing about “Robert the Bruce” — a heartfelt but exasperating and unfocused “Braveheart” sequel that finds Angus Macfadyen reprising his role from that Oscar-winning epic — is that it doesn’t find a role for Mel Gibson. Alas, the worst thing about this generic follow-up is that it almost makes you wish that it had.
Despite forsaking the massive scale and maniacal egotism of Gibson’s blockbuster in favor of something a bit more life-sized and contained (read: cheaper), Richard Gray’s medieval family melodrama could use some of the dick-swinging bellicosity that “Braveheart” kept under its kilt. It could use some of that movie’s fire and bloodlust, and maybe even a smidgen of the smirking charm that allowed Gibson to leverage the First War of Scottish Independence into a vanity project for the ages. It could use any kind of animating force whatsoever.
Picking up in 1306, the year after William Wallace’s death, “Robert the Bruce” introduces itself as a kind of anti-myth — a rebuke to the idea that cults of personality should be history’s organizing principle (a sensible approach, considering that Bruce struggled with self-promotion for much of his life). We meet the future King of Scotland during one of his lowest and most storied moments, as he mortally wounds a rival claimant for the throne (Jared Harris cameos as the short-lived John Comyn) and then retreats into the snows of winter without a clear strategy for how to unite his broken people.
Co-written by Eric Belgau and Macfadyen, the script frames these opening moments as a bedtime story that a widowed Scottish mother named Morag (Anna Hutchison) is reading to her kids; one son argues that she’s fudging the details, to which she replies that she tells the tale in her own way. If “Braveheart” was all too eager to print the legend, “Robert the Bruce” positions itself as some kind of counterbalance; not as fact, but rather as a film that engages with history as a liquid and uncertain thing that’s shaped between kings and common people alike.
That’s a lesson Bruce will have to internalize if he’s to redeem himself, rally his troops, and mount a proper fight for the Scottish crown. It’s a process that might be better suited to an intimate chamber piece than a mud-and-glory epic like 2018’s “Outlaw King” (which dramatized many of the same events, and encountered different struggles along the way), but “Robert the Bruce” has so much trouble setting the table that you’ll lose your appetite long before the film arrives at the meat of its story.
It’s a bit silly that Robert the Bruce has aged a full 25 years in the few months that have elapsed since the events of “Braveheart,” but it was a hard world back then, and Mcfadyen was so memorably tortured in Gibson’s film — so unshakeable an embodiment of the embattled Scottish ruler — that it’s tempting to overlook that quibble. Less forgivable is how “Robert the Bruce” backgrounds its namesake until he’s all but forgotten.
Once Comyn is left for dead, the script shifts its focus to the self-cannibalizing remnants of Bruce’s army (embodied by a capable but miscast Patrick Fugit), and the English loyalists who hunt them across the hungry winter. The most dangerous of those turncoats is a long-haired sociopath by the name of Brandubh (the menacing Zach McGowan, another American actor in a movie that passes off the mountains of Montana for the Scottish highlands), who just happens to be Morag’s brother-in-law. That puts the gentle widow in a delicate position when her kids stumble upon a gravely wounded Bruce in the forest, and take him into their home to recover.
It’s strange how unsurprised those children are to see Bruce materialize out of their bedtime stories, and stranger still that the local hero spends the entire first half of the movie in a feverish coma by the fire. “You want the only thing you cannot have,” Comyn tells Bruce. “To be William Wallace. To be loved like he was. To be brave like him. What a wretched wish that is for you to have — how it must coil in your gut.” Harris sells the hell out of that dialogue, and yet Gray still feels the need to literalize that diss and dramatize the state of the Bruce’s entrails.
Meanwhile, Morag grows nervous that her precocious tween son (Gabriel Bateman as the aptly named Scot) might be swayed by Brandubh’s dark influence; it’s clear the marauder wants to pick up where his brother left off, make Morag his wife, and bring her kids into his fight against the Bruce. This too is a potentially compelling dilemma, but Gray’s film muddies the water by moving in too many directions at once. It’s distracting enough that several of Morag’s children are saddled with disposable side-plots, and worse that the script chooses to pursue them; young Scot assumes an especially bizarre role, as Morag reckons with a prophecy of his premature death, and tries to bargain with the witch (Melora Walters!) who made it.
By the time that Bruce wakes up and re-emerges into his own movie, the struggle to wrestle it back from all of the flavorless nonsense that transpired in his absence seems as daunting as the actual fight for Scottish independence. Bruce’s relationship with Morag’s family — the way he responds to her needs, finds purpose in her kids, and prepares them all for the battles to come — is positioned as a formative moment for the future sovereign, and a microcosm of his grace as a leader. But despite Macfadyen’s steely resolve, and the measured process by which the actor thaws his character’s destiny, it’s too late for the film to forge any kind of meaningful bond.
We’re left instead with a kind of ersatz “Seven Samurai,” as Bruce readies Morag’s clan for Brandubh’s inevitable attack. The skirmish is serviceable enough when it finally happens, but Gray lacks the thread he needs to sew that conflict into the larger quilt of its hero’s life (and a last-minute blitz of bagpipe music and helicopter shots doesn’t quite manage to glaze this story with the gravitas it demands). “Robert the Bruce” seeks to explore the relationship between a ruler and their people, offering intimacy and personal concern as the best defense against a puppet government. Unlike its namesake, however, this cold and slapdash costume party of a film never figures out how to unite its many scattered parts.
Screen Media will release “Robert the Bruce” on VOD on Friday, April 24.