Release Date(s)2019 (October 2, 2020)
Studio(s)Yellow Brick Films/Metro International (Capelight Pictures Germany)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C
[Editor’s Note: This is a German import 4K UHD release, but it’s all region and includes the original English language audio. It’s also currently available to order from Amazon US.]
The year is 1306. With William Wallace killed, and the former King of Scotts, Alexander III, also dead for twenty years, it’s fallen on Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen) to take up the fight for Scottish independence. But that fight does not go well. His army beaten and in disarray, the Bruce orders his men to return home and goes on the run. Hunted by bandits seeking the English bounty on his head, the Bruce is badly wounded but manages to escape. Found by a makeshift family formed of those left behind by men who died for him, these loyal Scots choose to hide and care for him. But the Bruce must fight not only for his own life, but to find the will to take up the sword again.
Robert the Bruce is a film production I’ve been tracking for several years now, since I first learned of MacFadyen’s effort to see it made. It was directed by the Aussie helmer Richard Gray, whose previous work includes The Lookalike (2014), Sugar Mountain (2016), and Broken Ghost (2018). Shot entirely on location, partly in Scotland and partly in Montana (in the middle of winter, no less—which greatly enhances the authenticity), the film includes a surprisingly good cast. Jared Harris (HBO’s Chernobyl) has a small supporting role, while the main ensemble includes Anna Hutchinson (Encounter) as Morag, the woman who cares for the Bruce, Patrick Fugit (First Man) and Zach McGowan (Agents of SHIELD) as local brigands who hunt him, and a number of fine young actors as Morag’s real and adopted children, all of them joining MacFadyen (who reprises his Braveheart role).
The important thing to know here is that this is a modest film, not an epic in the mold of Braveheart, yet it’s absolutely a direct sequel to that film. The best way to think of it is, this is the Bruce’s long dark knight of the soul—the story of how he loses his faith and finds it again. It’s set a year after Wallace’s death as seen in Braveheart, but some eight years before the very last scene in that film—the Battle of Bannockburn—in which Scottish independence is finally won. It’s an intimate, personal story, set on and near one particular farm in the Scottish Highlands. Written by MacFadyen and Eric Belgau, the script is a bit of a slow burn at first. But the production quality is high and the story rewards your patience. With cinematography by John Garrett (who worked previously as a camera operator on Man of Steel, Avengers: Endgame, and HBO’s Watchmen) and music by composer Mel Elias, Robert the Bruce is pleasant surprise. It’s well worth your time.
Robert the Bruce was shot digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (at 4K) using Arri Alexa SXT cameras (with some aerial shots captured using DJI Inspire 2 drones equipped with X7 cameras in the 6K RAW codec). It was finished as a native 4K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio for its limited theatrical release. For this Ultra HD edition, the film has been graded for high dynamic range (HDR10 only is available). The upgrade from the standard Blu-ray image is substantial, with good detail, pleasing textures, and a light-to-moderate application of cinema grain. The contrast is excellent, with deep blacks and fine shadow detailing. The brightest areas of the frame are bold, which enhances candle light, shimmering armor, and the oppressive gloom of the winter skies. The film’s palette is somewhat bleak by design, but the colors you do see are now much richer and more natural, especially the earth tones that dominate the film—browns, reds, and golds—all of which contrast well with the deep blue shadings of the frozen environment.
Sound options are included in the original English and also German in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format, with optional German subtitles. Note that whichever audio option you select, the onscreen titles and prologue text will appear in German only (except the main title which is displayed in English as well). Regardless, the English 5.1 mix is the same as you’ll find on the UK (Signature Entertainment) and American (Screen Media) Blu-ray releases (the UK release is reviewed here on The Bits). The front soundstage is medium wide, with the surround channels largely dominated by ambience and a subtle-but-warm score that recalls James Horner’s work on Braveheart (if with far less percussion) yet also stands on its own. Dialogue clarity is excellent. Tonally, the mix has a full sound, with decent low end. Panning and movement are more subtle, but natural. The 5.1 mix isn’t likely to win any awards, but it’s solid.
It terms of bonus content, Capelight’s 4K package includes no Blu-ray or Digital copy of the film, but you do get the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with director Richard Gray and Angus MacFayden (in English only with no subtitles)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:56 – in German only with no subtitles)
The audio commentary is identical to the one on the previous Blu-ray releases, but the trailer is new. Note that the US Blu-ray also had a brief behind-the-scenes featurette (The Making of Robert the Bruce – 10:57) that’s not included here, but you can watch it online at this YouTube link. This 4K disc also opens with preview trailers for The Last Kingdom (2015-present, UK TV series), The First King: Romulus & Remus (2019), and Kingdom (2019).
Back to the commentary for a moment: This film has obviously been a passion project for MacFadyen (and bless him for it), who talks about his 13-year effort to bring the story to the screen and how the script was originally meant to be a true epic over three hours in length. But by narrowing it down to a more intimate story, the characters came more fully to life. The pair also discusses the cast, the production, and other interesting anecdotes. MacFadyen apparently nearly lost an eye during the shoot. The production was beset by illness and weather issues—par for the course given the frigid Montana locations. Gray also reveals that he first learned of the project from Hutchinson, who’d just worked with MacFadyen on another film, and that Braveheart was the first DVD he ever owned.
I’m genuinely pleased to say that Robert the Bruce is a solid and worthy sequel. It’s well acted, well shot, and adds a great deal to your appreciation of the title character and his journey. Again, the key thing is to remember that this a personal tale, not an epic one. That said, as a fan of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, I’m damn glad to finally see this film and now to own it in 4K Ultra HD. For the moment at least, you can currently order this UHD disc from Amazon US for just $28. It’s certainly recommended.
- Bill Hunt