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TIFF 2018: Outlaw King, Transit

With its sweeping drone coverage of the Scottish country and the capital-W Wide shots of warriors on the battlefield (which will definitely play well when watched on a laptop this November, courtesy of Netflix), David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King” formally aspires to be a historical epic. It features the requisite period costumes and sets, clearly well-researched by the film’s design team, as well as plenty of grisly battle sequences befitting 14th century combat. Its underdog narrative hits all the appropriate beats, first immersing the audience in ruin before lifting them up to victory. It just does so without any feeling. It’s a forgettable, middling exercise in violent dress-up.

Thankfully, "Outlaw King”s five (!) credited writers narrowed the film’s scope to a few crucial years during the early reign of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine, emoting adequately), at least sparing us from a by-the-numbers, birth-to-death biography. Mackenzie’s tenth feature essentially covers Robert’s dark period, from when he submitted to Edward I’s rule under duress to when he rose up an army against him and, after many devastating losses, eventually gained the upper hand over the English. Amidst the strife, Robert also marries his second wife Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh, in a predictably thankless role), a headstrong young woman who exhibits bravery in the circumscribed way that she can. Though the young couple grows closer through their separation, “Outlaw King” has its sights firmly set upon Robert’s valiance, as well as the loyalty of his closest soldiers, which include James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran).

Besides one well-staged scene in which the English attack Robert and his clan at night with flaming arrows, Mackenzie doesn’t have a visual feel for this type of warfare. He employs handheld camera work and liberal use of squibs to amp up the intensity, but it all runs together so much that little stands out. It doesn’t help that he’s at the mercy of a script that plods from one scene to the next, breaking up the monotony with bland battle scenes or cheap attempts at characterization, i.e. differentiating between one Scot from the next. On top of that, the performances are all over the place, some leaning into camp while others play for respectability. Billy Howle’s performance as the cartoonishly villainous Prince Edward is easily the film’s best, but it says something that he also grates continuously from the moment he steps into the frame until the moment he leaves for the final time.

There’s some notable weirdness in the margins of “Outlaw King”—odd line readings from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, anachronistic stabs at hollow wokeness in the early scenes between Robert and Elizabeth, notably bad CGI juxtaposed against the film’s otherwise high production values, a really weird sex scene that my friend and colleague Charles Bramesco rightly compares to the one in “The Room”—and while it’s somewhat appreciated that there are moments of outright comedy to balance the film’s dire tone, none of it can save a film that almost strives to be ignored. The story of Robert the Bruce, and by extension the history of Scottish independence, is certainly an interesting one, but until someone can figure out how to convey it without relying upon trite historical shorthand, it will remain flat on the screen, no matter the size.

Christian Petzold takes an interesting approach to historicity with “Transit,” his follow-up to the widely acclaimed WWII drama “Phoenix.” The film follows Georg (Franz Rogowski), a European refugee fleeing German authorities that are occupying various parts of France, but while “Transit” invokes Nazi occupation, it isn’t set in the ‘40s. In fact, Petzold doesn’t adorn “Transit” with any period signifiers (there are modern cars and architecture, as well as cheeky reference to “Dawn of the Dead”) because the film is stuck out of time. “Transit” exists in a liminal temporal space designed to bridge the past and present, but Petzold rarely calls attention to it. He simply commits to the reality of the moment, trusting his audience to make the necessary connection and wade through periods of crafted cognitive dissonance.

The temporal unmooring fits the film’s emotional character, one that relies on doubling and mistaken identity similar to “Phoenix.” Before getting a ride out of soon-to-be-occupied Paris, Georg retrieves a manuscript from a famous writer’s hotel room. After discovering the writer has committed suicide and his transport has been compromised, he secretly boards a train to the port city of Marseille. When he arrives, he heads to the Mexican consulate to try to get a visa out of France, but the head of the consulate believes Georg is the famous writer in question. Georg assumes the writer’s identity, taking the certified papers and the boat ticket assigned to the dead man. But everything goes existentially pear-shaped when he meets and falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer), the writer’s husband who keeps searching for her man.

Petzold commits to the premise’s melodrama without relying upon high-key emotion. He keeps the action restrained, but it rarely if ever feels like a pose. His characters fall in love with reckless abandon, yet they’re always readily aware of the consequences of their actions and the inherent tragedy of their situation. Georg lives a lie, but it’s one of many of the unspoken lies that permeate his situation. Georg and Marie’s relationship has dishonest foundations, but their passion is anything but. Love, sacrifice, and compassion are hoary concepts when used as pawns in a rigged game, but with Petzold, they’re just the unsexy facts of being a person on the run who lives and breathes human air.

If there’s any flaw in “Transit,” it’s the film’s voiceover, initially dispassionate before Petzold reveals its true origins, that scans as needless at best and distracting at worst. But even that element begins to make poetic sense when the film heads into the homestretch and Georg’s behavior adopts a literary heft. As someone who really liked “Phoenix” but felt that it was partially too removed for my tastes, “Transit” snuck up on me, hitting me in the solar plexus at just the right moment. It’s a stunning work whose surprises work right to the closing credits song, which deserves to go unspoiled but put a big smile on my face.

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