Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 25, 2020)
For most movie audiences, the historical figure Robert the Bruce remains known mainly via his supporting role in 1995’s Oscar-winning Braveheart. Decades later, the character gets his own feature via 2019’s logically titled Robert the Bruce.
Set in 1306 – after the death of Braveheart’s crusading William Wallace – the death of King Alexander III leaves Scotland without a leader. Some aspirants link with England, but Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) continues to pursue the cause of Scottish independence for which Wallace fought.
Battles leave Robert wounded and near defeat. A fortuitous encounter with Scot (Gabriel Bateman), a boy whose father died as one of Robert’s soldiers, leads him on the path to recovery and potential victory.
Even all these years later, I remain surprised that Braveheart took home the Best Picture Oscar. It didn’t seem all that well-regarded when it hit screens, and it topped more logical contenders like Apollo 13 or the unnominated Casino.
But win Braveheart did, and over the next couple of decades, it mutated into a classic of sorts – one I don’t quite get. While I like the film as a whole, I never thought it seemed Oscar-worthy, and I can’t grasp its persistent popularity. As I note in my review, it comes across like a slightly more serious version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves than an Oscar-bait epic.
As surprised as the legacy of Braveheart leaves me, I say this with confidence: no such cult will evolve around Bruce. Whatever flaws I find in Mel Gibson’s tale, it looks like a work of genius compared to this muddled mess.
Both films enjoy a connection beyond subject matter: Macfadyen, who improbably reprises his role as Robert. During the events of Braveheart, the Bruce would’ve been late 20s or so, which made the then-31-year-old actor a near-perfect age match.
Now 56 years old, Macfadyen clearly is far too old to play the historical Robert. It’d be comical to watch Braveheart and Bruce as a double feature, as you’d see Robert grow old overnight.
To some degree, this disconnect between Macfadyen’s age and the character’s doesn’t matter, as Bruce spends a lot of time away from the character – an awful lot of time. So much of the film devotes its energy to Scot’s family that one might paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm: you do plan to have Robert the Bruce in your Robert the Bruce movie, right?
This exaggerates the Bruce’s absence somewhat, but boy, the film really does seem infatuated with Scot and his clan. Nearly half the movie passes before Robert finally ends up assisted by then, and it uses all that time for meandering character moments of little import.
Really, who cares about Scot and company? Do we need to see their interactions and concerns in a story about a significant historical leader?
Nope. While Braveheart indulged in its own character drama, at least those moments served the overall narrative and didn’t openly detract from the main story.
As implied, here Robert feels like an afterthought. The film devotes so much time to other characters that by the time it does include Robert more actively, we don’t really care.
Eventually, Bruce turns into an awkward mix of family drama – with Robert as father figure – and Western. Rather than feature a large-scale battle, the movie goes toward a borderline silly clash between kids and soldiers.
Somewhere buried deep, one might find an effective story, but the basic narrative of Bruce seems too slight to sustain two hours of cinematic real estate. In a way, I appreciate the shift from big historical epic to smaller family drama, but the end result just doesn’t work.
We simply never much care about the characters, and the whole enterprise comes across as awfully trite. Take away the historical setting and we find a series of predictable story beats without anything new to say.