“Robert the Bruce” sounds like it could be the title of a Mel Brooks parody of a rousingly high-minded chain-mail-and-Lochaber-axe medieval hero epic. (It’s a sword clank away from something like “Bruce the Lionhearted.”) I don’t mean to come off as ignorant or disrespectful, since Robert the Bruce was, of course, the 14th-century Scottish king who fought alongside William Wallace and is revered in his homeland for having led the First War of Scottish Independence against England. Nevertheless, the people who made the staid, morose, and achingly pedestrian historical drama “Robert the Bruce” are a little too in love with the sound of people saying that name. “Robert the Bruce! Can you hear me?!” shouts the leader of a roving band of roughneck English loyalists, over and over again. If you watched this movie and played a drinking game where you had to take a slurp of ale every time someone says “Robert the Bruce,” there’d be no one sober left.
The picture opens with a black-and-white title that reads, “Scotland, 1306. The death of King Alexander III has left the country in turmoil. With no heir, powerful nobles compete for the Scottish crown.” I’ll confess that a title like that one leaves me vaguely depressed on several levels. There’s a this-movie-will-tell-rather-than-show annoyance built into it, since the very premise (a “country in turmoil”) is something we’re never really going to see. Even more so, that kind of title is too often a gateway to Boringville.
Yet it doesn’t have to be. In the ’90, “Braveheart” evoked a rousing tinge of old-fashioned Hollywood passion, and so did the even better “Rob Roy.” Just last year, “The King,” about Henry V, had an elegantly rounded script and fierce performances from Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson (among others). “Robert the Bruce,” though, is a “heartfelt” but static experience.
It’s the second drama about Robert the Bruce in a little over a year (after David Mackenzie’s muddier, bloodier “Outlaw King”), and it’s theoretically a companion piece to “Braveheart,” since Robert is portrayed by the same actor who played him in Mel Gibson’s film: Angus MacFadyen, who had a dashing presence and the coal-fire eyes of a true believer. Twenty-five years later, MacFadyen, more rounded, with short hair and a less ornate goatee, looks and acts like a chastened monk — or, at crucial points, like Anthony Hopkins if he were a competitor on the Pro Bowlers’ Tour.
You might expect, in one of these movies, to see an episode in which the hero, defeated and dispirited, licks his wounds at an isolated farmhouse after being taken in by a patriotic Scottish widow and her three young charges. But in “Robert the Bruce,” that’s more or less the entire movie — it’s “Braveheart: The Polite Domesticated Streaming Version.” The film is dunked in a lukewarm bath of doubt and regret, as Robert, reeling from a series of military defeats, comes to question whether God has truly chosen to him to be king. He needs to get his swagger back. But it’s the movie itself that seems to be fighting to do that.
At the start, when Robert faces down John Comyn, the clan leader who’s his rival for the Scottish throne, Jared Harris plays Comyn by throwing some Shakespearean fire into his lines. “You want the one thing you cannot have,” he hisses. “To be William Wallace…How it must coil in your gut.” Has Jared Harris ever given a dull line reading? In “Robert the Bruce,” he has such flourish that he sets the bar at a place the rest of the drama refuses to go.
Robert, seeing that his men have lost their fighting spirit, dismisses them; he will make his own way, even with a bounty of 50 gold pieces on his head. He first spies Morag (Anna Hutchison), a saintly widow, huddled with her young son, Scot (Gabriel Bateman), over her late husband’s grave, so right off we know that Robert is going to be the new father figure. He is taken in by them after nearly being killed. And as his stab wounds heal, he wins them over, along with Morag’s teenage niece and nephew (Talitha Bateman and Brandon Lessard), even though the children start off resentful, because all of them have lost their fathers to the cause of Robert’s war. He teaches them the lethal arts of swordsmanship and archery, as well as lessons like, “You know what it takes to be a good soldier?” “Killing lots of men?” “No. To be a good soldier, first you have to be a good brother, a good friend, and a good son.” You also have to endure extreme pain — like, for example, sitting through dialogue like that while trying to prop your eyelids open.
Directed by Richard Gray, “Robert the Bruce” feels like a producer’s movie — a somber package, with elements all lined up that don’t fully come to life. The decision to use the wilds of Montana to stand in for the Scottish Highlands was a good one, and the brogues are mostly fine. In fact, the two best brogues in the movie may be by American actors — Patrick Fugit, in a shaved-at-the-sides Scottish-punk-metal battle cut, as one of a trio of Robert’s men who end up trying to kill him for the bounty, and Zach McGowan as Brandubh, Morag’s feral brother-in-law, who covets her and despises Robert. McGowan knows how to invest ire with intelligence, and he has mastered the art of making riding a horse look like a form of strutting. When he’s onscreen, the film vibrates. When you’re watching MacFadyen’s Robert, it swells with nobility and deflates at the same time.