Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 11

Outlaw King, and The Fight.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

If you want an idea of what “encroaching burnout/exhaustion” looks like, then let me tell you it’s something that happens when the amount of time it takes for you to write two and a half reviews in a row escalates from roughly two hours and change to five hours and change, completely fucking up your tight-ass schedule and forcing you to do it all – the early mornings, the travel scramble, the three/four screenings within a twelve-hour period, and the timely review-writing for each of those films – over again the following day on less than six hours of sleep.  Doing an entire film festival, especially one like the London Film Festival that runs for nearly a fortnight if you stick to just the actual Festival days, is legitimately exhausting.  Admittedly, I have not helped matters for myself by committing to this ridiculous workload of 3,000 words per day for sixteen straight days, but the point is that I am approaching the wall.  Athletes and people who exercise a shit-load likely know what I’m talking about; that wall where you are simply mentally incapable of going any further and just collapse from the strain of it all.

Fortunately, I semi-intentionally worked in a little rest-stop for my marathon this year.  Wednesday the 17th of October were the 2018 Q Awards and Wolf Alice played a post-show gig with IDLES, a gig that I bought tickets for back in June when it was announced because I never got to see Wolf Alice properly on the Visions of a Life Tour and this seemed like the next best thing.  As a result, this constituted the closest thing I could get to a night off where I finished up screenings early, turned in my pieces super-early, then logged off to go enjoy a night out with no intention of waking up in a timely fashion the following morning.  Down side for you lot is that we’re only covering two films today and (likely) only covering two films tomorrow, but the upside is that I’ll hopefully be well-rested, recharged, and ready to take on the last few days with pep, zeal and a less noticeable dip in the quality of my writing!  And I also know that I could have avoided this predicament altogether by taking it easy and lightening the workload I elected to take on, but shut up, you ingrate.

The extended one-take that opens up David Mackenzie’s historical epic Outlaw King (Grade: C+) has been sticking in many critics’ minds when they talk about the movie and it’s stuck in mine too.  There’s the showy technical wizardry, of course, starting inside King Edward I of England’s (Stephen Dillane) tent in the dying embers of the unseen William Wallace’s failed Scottish rebellion as he forces Scotland’s remaining lords, most notably Robert Bruce III (Chris Pine) to swear fealty to England, moves out one side of the tent to take in a duel between Robert and Edward, Prince of Wales (a sputtering mad-eyed Billy Howle hamming it up for all it’s worth), moving back inside the tent, and finally out the other end to the reveal of a gigantic flaming trebuchet Edward I fires at a nearby castle before finally accepting the Scots’ surrender.  But formalistic prowess has never meant shit to me when talking about long-takes, even when they’re as impressive as the one featured here (though marred by the same dodgy CGI that mars the rest of the film).  Rather, this opening sticks in my mind because it’s the first and last time that Outlaw King displays anything resembling a sense of patience.  The take covers a lot of ground and sets up lots of information, but it also contains a pacing that the rest of the film lacks, letting beats hang for a moment instead of speeding through them like it’s trying to qualify for pole position in a Grand Prix.

Were the opening of Outlaw King paced like the rest of the movie, we would have dived straight from Robert swearing fealty into the shot of King Edward using the giant trebuchet without any of the connective tissue or build the scene employs to make the reveal of the trebuchet so effective.  Although, like the rest of Outlaw King, the trebuchet is set-up and paid off in the same scene to never be mentioned again afterwards.  Lots of Mackenzie’s latest film is like this, the focus and deliberate pacing of his recent classics Starred Up and Hell or High Water subsumed by grand Hollywood spectacle and a scope too wide to adequately squeeze into two hours of film.  Rather like the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs (which I saw earlier in the Festival), Netflix’s latest big-name, big-budget effort to play in the same pool as the Hollywood big-boys feels more like a really enjoyable miniseries that’s been squeezed into a single feature to its ultimate detriment.  Watching Outlaw King is akin to viewing a full season of a historical epic on fast-forward.  Sure, you can do that, but you’re going to lose all of the emotion and thematic depth that makes a story worth telling, being left with a series of grand moments that mean nothing.

Which is pretty much exactly what ends up happening.  Mackenzie’s film charts the Scottish rebellion from its brief days of fealty to the English crown, to Robert’s coronation as King of Scots after the death of his father, to his fatal mistake of murdering John Conwyn on holy ground, all the way up to the decisive Battle of Bannockburn, in about two hours, whilst also taking on a seemingly endless supply of support and minor characters whose often gruesome fates we’re expected to care about.  Something has to give and, unsurprisingly, that “something” is anything to do with character work or a thematic underpinning.  Wanting to know what the response and repercussions to Robert murdering a man on holy ground were besides a few allies saying “that’s war” and a few others going “I won’t support you?”  Find another movie.  Want to know why the Scots and the Scottish public, despite having already spent eight years embroiled in a hopeless war, were so willing to risk their lives to defy English rule?  Taxes and pride and also the English are scum, what more do you need?  Want to learn more about Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s loyal James Douglas beyond what very minor bits of ADR they could squeeze into the edges, or how Robert felt about having to forsake chivalry in favour of guerilla tactics and sacking his own castles to get the upper hand?  Buy a book.

Much more problematically than all of its side characters having little to contribute in action or personality – Florence Pugh is especially wasted as Robert’s wife, Elizabeth de Bergh, shunted into the rebellion’s sidelines despite getting a whole load of virtue-signalling speeches about her refusal to be shunted into the rebellion’s sidelines – is that there’s a giant black hole at the centre of Outlaw King where a protagonist is supposed to be.  This is necessarily not Chris Pine’s fault, he works those baby blues with as much power as he can muster and his Scottish accent only very rarely slips to Groundskeeper Willie standards, but he is lost here.  You would be too if you were forced to anchor a giant historical epic without actually having a character to play.  There’s never any sense that Robert was a real person with a life, wants and needs, or even thoughts going on up in his head, aside from his chivalry and refusal to force his wife to have sex on their arranged wedding night cos he’s One of the Good Ones.  He just stands the situation with the English until he can’t stands no more.  He’s a symbol and symbols without further extrapolation make for boring movie protagonists.

So, without anything substantial happening under the surface, all that’s left is the spectacle and visceral action.  Mackenzie at least excels at those, his preference for gritty realism providing many stomach-churning dispatchings with a regular frequency – although that realism also means that both sides have extremely similar scavenged war uniforms which makes the bigger battles (somewhat by design) hard to keep track of.  But it says something about Outlaw King‘s priorities that it can’t find room to give a young squire any actual character traits but are supposed to have formed such an attachment to that his disappearance and subsequent reappearance are played as big emotional beats, yet it can find time to show us in lovely detail what the process of hanging-drawing-and-quartering does to a man’s intestines.  Whether it be due to time constraints, a lack of imagination, or a severe mixing up of priorities, Outlaw King is an empty movie that feels actively hobbled from achieving anything close to its potential.  The intensity of Mackenzie is here, but the drama and intelligence that characterise his work are nowhere to be seen.

That “+” is for Chris Pine hanging dong.  Always add an extra “+” to any movie that features a nice clear shot of Chris Pine’s penis.

Before going into The Fight (Grade: B+), Jessica Hynes’ directorial debut, I had a whole bunch of planned intros for this review I was going to choose from.  Not very professional a thing for a critic to do, I know, but I find that the contrast between pre and post-viewing thoughts can sometimes structure a particularly rudderless review.  I was going to talk about the recent spate of British comedy workhorses that have finally turned their hands to or returned behind the camera to craft their own visions and showcases, like Alice Lowe with Prevenge or Paddy Considine with Journeyman.  Maybe discuss the fascination that writer-directors still have with the art of boxing and boxing as metaphor for self-improvement despite that well running the risk of going dry.  Or, I’ll admit it, putting forward my own semi-joking theory that Hynes has gotten behind the camera because she’s sick of both Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright (the three amigos responsible for beloved cult turn-of-the-century sitcom Spaced) not returning her calls and having to debase herself in stuff like Pudsey the Dog Movie and Nativity! 2.

After watching The Fight, I scrapped them all.  Every one of them, especially the partly-jokey and honestly quite-sexist theory one, does Hynes’ debut a major disservice.  The Fight is brilliant, a tender emotional drama that often managed to sock me right in the gut with its depictions of bullying, abuse, and the lasting damages caused by them.  Many similar British domestic dramas have covered this ground before but they can’t seem to help going melodramatic with the material and indulging in the kitchen-sink drama lineage that runs through this type of film, even the ones that consciously play up a gritty realist working-class aesthetic.  Hynes miraculously avoids that altogether.  I couldn’t point out a stereotypically BIG scene in its drama, and the back of my mind was always prepping like a hawk to pounce on anything that even remotely resembled an interaction during key narrative scenes that ordinary human beings wouldn’t make.

Perhaps I should extrapolate a little bit.  I was bullied as a child, quite often, even moved schools at the onset of Juniors in order to try and get away from one example of it, and the scenes featured in The Fight where Tina Bell’s (Hynes) eldest daughter is being bullied by another schoolgirl caused these flushes in the pit of my stomach where those prior memories came flooding back.  And what did it for me was the simplicity of it all.  The girl’s bully didn’t beat her up, enact a school-wide prank designed to humiliate her, didn’t come up with masses of creative insults.  All the bully does is shove her every day, insist that nobody likes her, call her a chicken when she refuses to fight back. Just these daily small acts designed to whittle down a victim’s self-esteem and make the bully feel better about themselves, which they’ll display in the moment for an additional hit to oneself.  When combined with Hynes’ matter-of-fact but very carefully-considered direction – although the visual style is very much de rigueur for 95% of first-time independent filmmakers, it’s the feel of the film, which is hard to describe much like it is with most movies, that’s the kicker here – these scenes provoked an extremely personal response within me in a way that I couldn’t shake off.

Somewhat akin to recent seasons of BoJack Horseman, The Fight seeks to show how the effects of bullying are not temporary and, in fact, can fuel further abuse and even go generational if the victim cannot work through those emotional scars.  It turns out that Tina and the bully’s mum (Radha Mitchell) have a prior history with one another that has impacted both of their home lives and the home lives of their children, whilst Tina’s own mother (a realistically detestable Anita Dobson) is revealed to have been emotionally and physically abusive to both Tina and her father (Christopher Fairbank) growing up and even today.  But, crucially, Hynes also understands that past histories are only reasons for bullying and abusive behaviour, not excuses.  That breaking out of that learned behaviour can be hugely difficult, especially at a young age when you become trapped in that feedback loop with no way out, but also that doing so is necessary in order to stop passing on the damage and being able to move on.  How both abuser and victim can overcorrect as they get older and either drown in self-punishing guilt and remorse or become the very thing they hated.

Honestly, the weakest part of this ostensible boxing drama is the boxing.  It’s an especially weird thing to say given that it passes all my tests with flying colours by being thematically resonant – not just on the usual level of being a metaphor for self-improvement, but how it represents the lingering guilt of a past self Tina despises yet can’t help being drawn to – and uniquely presented (I love how Hynes films the women sparring in the ring with an admiration of their control and strength).  But it’s also home to a few too many easy pop-psychology quotes and over-played story beats that feel ill-at-home in a movie like this.  This is a film that handles a minor subplot where one of Mick’s (Shaun Parkes), husband of Tina, work friends keeps calling him “Black Friend” to Mick’s extreme discomfort with a wonderful underplaying that lands a million times better than the inverse would have, so to see The Fight also bust out a few “getting strong now” montages for Tina feels antithetical to the story and tone Hynes is otherwise trying to convey.  Much better is the refreshingly candid and honest depiction of life as a working-class mother and the utter exhaustion and simmering discontent one can feel on days when everything is going wrong, because Hynes doesn’t shame or deny those feelings.  They happen to everyone sometimes and that’s ok so long as you do something about them.  Negative feelings are not inherently less valid than positive ones, after all.

So, even when The Fight stumbles or betrays its lived honesty for a brief moment of cliche – including a finale centred around a performance at a talent show, stop rolling your eyes – Hynes’ first turn behind the camera is a resounding success that I loved to pieces.  I can only hope that there will be plenty more to come in the future.

Tomorrow: I try to recover from Wolf Alice and IDLES by checking out Lee Chang-dong’s extremely buzzed-about mystery, Burning.

Callie Petch wants action, passion, smiling, laughing!

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