The bulky character actor Angus Macfadyen has worked consistently over the past three decades, on screens both big and small: he played Richard Burton to Sherilyn Fenn's Liz Taylor in a post-Twin Peaks TV movie, became Peter Lawford in HBO's The Rat Pack, and Orson Welles for Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. Arguably his highest profile role, however, remains that of Robert the Bruce in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, that multiple Oscar-winner that isn't much watched nowadays (hard to schedule a three-hour movie from ye olden days of 1995 in TV primetime, doubly so when its creative figurehead has done so much to vilify himself) yet which persists in informing our Game of Thrones-y moment. Now Macfadyen has co-authored the passion project Robert the Bruce, which - in a vaguely Trumpist bit of spin - he insists isn't a Braveheart sequel, even though the film takes place chronologically after William Wallace's death, and finds its writer-star once more playing the Bruce. Perhaps this is a considered tactic, designed to stave off either copyright lawsuits or direct critical comparisons. An indie project such as this was never going to attract a Fox budget or much in the way of star power, and the lack of Gibson's wild-eyed bloodlust comes to feel as much a failure of nerve as it is a virtue. Robert the Bruce is not unhandsome, but it falls too easily into the middle of that "men with beards trot round forests" subgenre primarily enjoyed by men with beards who don't get out as much. It's not so much mythic as anecdotal, and only ever as stirring as footnotes tend to be.
There are isolated flickers of interest. Macfadyen, co-writer Eric Belgau and the Australian director Richard Gray have realised this is a pointed moment to revisit a battle for (or to escape) a union with Scotland's neighbours to the south, and so the script serves as a tentative inquiry into the type of leader Highlanders might want to rally them towards independent rule: the conclusion would appear to be robust without being bellicose, of the people, and not populist. (Just as Robert learnt from Wallace's passing, so too Macfadyen may have taken a lesson or two from Gibson's flameout.) Partly to keep the beardiness in check, but also partly for thematic reasons, a high percentage of the tale is told by a peasant woman to her son, framing the Bruce as the kind of legend passed down from one generation to the next, and involved in a conflict that still reverberates today: you can only imagine Nicola Sturgeon's heart swelling upon hearing mother tell son "One day, we will all be free." (Looking at the toxic dead weight Scotland presently finds itself shackled to, you cannae blame her.) Yet while that framing device may have seemed inspired when Macfadyen was sitting at the laptop - not least because it covers several holes more money might have filled - it gives the action a weirdly passive, preordained quality when translated to the screen: in this telling, the story simply can't seize us by the throat, as Wallace's story did.
For a film titled Robert the Bruce, there's also not all that much Robert the Bruce: he's offscreen for at least an hour, holed up in exile with that spider (a spindly cameo from an uncredited arachnid), waiting for the threat levels to deescalate; much of the two-hour running time is therefore given over to the variously hirsute men roaming around snowbound woodland (in reality, the forests of, ahem, Montana) in search of him. Macfadyen, whose oratorical skills were a big part of his being cast as Welles, repurposes the character as a strong, silent type, holding firm in the midst of a constitutional crisis - exactly the kind of leader the Scottish people could do with right now - but his biding of time would only be interesting cinematically if the supporting parts were more richly drawn: a too-brief cameo from Jared Harris as thin-lipped appeaser John Comyn is as good as it gets on that front. There are advantages to the circumspect approach - during the quieter moments, you can almost hear history books being picked up rather than, say, tossed on a bonfire by a ululating Antipodean - and the film certainly displays greater consistency than Outlaw/King, David Mackenzie's compromised Netflix venture from last year. Yet it's really no more than consistently ordinary, never quite summoning the dramatic force to suggest why, even with the Union in the state it now is, it might be necessary, let alone essential.
Robert the Bruce opens in selected cinemas from today.