Robert the Bruce (2019)

Rating: B-

Dir: Richard Gray
Star: Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Zach McGowan, Diarmaid Murtagh

Firstly, I have to say this one gave me nostalgic feelings for watching crappily subtitled Hong Kong movies in the nineties. For some reason, watching this on Hulu, we had the closed captions on… and whoever transcribed them was clearly not familiar with the Scottish accent. I’ve not seem more “[inaudible]”, for perfectly audible lines, and some of the transcriptions were spectacularly wrong-headed. For example, “Our faith is tied to yours” was subtitled as “Our faith has tired tears.” Perhaps most woefully, on discussing the price on the Bruce’s head, it was announced that anyone turning him in “shall receive the sum of 50 gold pieces.” The captions? “Shall we see the son of [inaudible] gone to pieces.”

This begins with the face-off between Robert the Bruce and John Comyn at Greyfriars, over whether Scotland should continue to rebel against England. It turns out this is being told, as a story, by widowed crofter Morag (Hutchinson) to her children, some years later. Bruce has suffered multiple defeats, and it’s now just him and a few hardy supporters, with (as mentioned above), a bounty on him. What’s particularly notable here is the absence of the English, who hardly appear at all: this depicts a Scotland which is fractured down the middle. You’re either for Comyn or for Bruce: the question of which is often raised, and impacts relationships, even among Morag’s family. Her husband was killed fighting for Bruce, but his brother (McGowan) – a Comyn supporter – is now sniffing around the widow. So when a wounded Bruce turns up on her doorstep, after fending off an ambush, she’s faced with a troubling dilemma. Does she honour her own belief in Bruce, along with that of her late husband? Or cash in on the life-changing reward?

This is certainly a very human portrayal of Bruce, and better for it. He’s highly fallible, and very much tempted to give up.  This even includes the legendary incident of him seeing a spider trying to spin its web, teaching him a lesson about perseverance. It’s almost certainly total bollocks, historically, but none the less effective for it. However, I do have to take points off for being mostly shot in… Montana. Was Scotland somehow unavailable? You can tell, since Scotland, while having its moments, just isn’t as spectacularly vertical [Highest point in Montana: Granite Peak at 12,799 feet, close to three times that of Scotland’s Ben Nevis] It is, clearly, also on a smaller scale, with the battles being mere skirmishes, involving just a few on either side.

Arguably, Bruce is not even the lead here; you could make a case it’s Morag’s story. If, however, you are fine with that, not looking for something epic, and are good with more personal drama, occasionally interrupted by sword-swinging, this may well hit the mark. This was obviously a labour of love for McFadyen, who wrote the script over a decade earlier. He reprises his character from Braveheart to good effect, and is considerably more sympathetic here. While he’s a couple decades older than Bruce actually was, this just adds a not inappropriate air of world-weariness.