‘Someday we’ll all be free…’ ‘Aye, someday, we’ll all be dead…’ runs a muted exchange in Richard Gray’s Robert The Bruce, which sees co-writer, co-producer and star Angus Macfadyen playing the same role he did in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart. Glasgow-born Macfadyen has gestated this spin-off project for over a decade, and with snowy Montana locations used for the Scottish Highlands, Robert The Bruce extends the history lesson to double-down on an incident that only makes for a few seconds of screen time in Outlaw King, but which captures much of the Bruce’s reputation in his homeland.
The Montana location raises a specific issue; post Rob Roy and Braveheart, film-making in Scotland had a momentum which has vanished in the 20 years since, largely because of the operation of government agencies Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland. Formed under the auspices of Conservative Michael Forsyth, then running through Labour and SNP administrations, they’ve blocked native Scots from any political or historical content, forcing rebel productions like this to offer their home thoughts from abroad.
Robert the Bruce is introduced in his violent confrontation with John Comyn (Jared Harris), which he quickly realises is a trap. Betrayed and injured, the Bruce retreats to a cave where a chance encounter with a helpful role-model spider inspires him to try and try again. Morag (Anna Hutchinson) and her family provide him with shelter and help heal his physical wounds, but with a price on his head, various parties are closing in on the king.
Robert The Bruce has been front-page news in Scotland due to the UK’s second largest cinema chain changing its mind about not showing it. Critics have been quick to suggest political motives, but Gray’s film is serious and sombre fare that should find its largest audience when its gets to streaming rather than amongst the froth of the summer multiplex. Macfadyen largely keeps himself off-screen to focus on Morag’s domestic situation, and while the film runs too long, its meditates in a compelling way on how the Bruce found his sense of purpose in the needs of his own people.
It’s become a regular occurrence for US film studios like Disney and Universal to open their films on hundreds of screens in Scotland without providing any opportunity for press to review them. It’s hard to imagine that high profile films shot in Scotland like Trainspotting 2 or Avengers; Infinity War lack the £200 for a press show; ascribing negative political motives to these decisions to stifle debate is natural. If nothing else, Robert The Bruce’s successful fight to make an appearance in local multiplexes suggests that, against the odds in such a politically charged climate, a Scot might still get a voice amongst his own people.