In the past month, Netflix has premiered two visually impressive historical dramas by noted directors. Aleksei German Jr.’s Dovlatov, a nontraditional biopic of Russian novelist Sergei Dovlatov, became available to stream at the end of October, while David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, about the Scots’ armed rebellion against English occupation in the early 14th century, was made available on the site two weeks ago. Neither film is American, yet both feel like Hollywood productions in their slick stylization and blatant anachronisms. In fact one might say that Dovlatov and Outlaw King go down as easily as they do because they advance a recognizably contemporary perspective on the past. One watches these films comfortably on the “right” side of history—it’s clear who you’re supposed to root for and jeer against, and the filmmakers make efforts to honor 21st-century concepts of anti-imperialism and women’s rights. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of either, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it were minimal in both.
I prefer Dovlatov to Outlaw King for a few reasons: it introduced me to a subject with which I was unfamiliar, and I found it more inventive in its form and structure. As opposed to most artist biopics, which attempt to summarize the subjects’ entire careers, Dovlatov takes the novel approach of dramatizing just six days in the protagonist’s life. And where traditional biopics devote at least some time to the subjects’ creative achievements, Dovlatov is concerned exclusively with the hero’s failures. Sergei Dovlatov (who died in 1990 at the age of 48) was a novelist who was unable to publish his books in the Soviet Union and became respected in his home country only after his death. German’s film looks in on the writer in early November 1971 when Dovlatov (played by Milan Maric in a winningly wry performance) is at the height of his frustration. Estranged from his wife and daughter and working as a reporter for a factory newspaper (the only writing job he can get), he finds solace in killing time with other suppressed writers and artists. German, directing a script he wrote with Yulia Tupikina, crafts a ingratiatingly warm portrait of this stifled community, developing an ironic sense of moral triumph amidst professional defeat.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that the film takes place in the same year that German’s father (one of the all-time great Russian directors) completed his feature Trial on the Road, only for Soviet authorities to suppress it for 15 years. Indeed Dovlatov often plays like a tribute to German Sr. in its graceful, mysterious camera movements and in its bursts of odd humor. In one subplot, Dovlatov pretends to be a police inspector and plays a prank on a pathetic informant who’s been ratting out the intellectuals of Leningrad for trying to procure contraband copies of Nabokov’s Lolita. In another, the writer becomes obsessed with a dream of talking about piña coladas with Leonid Brezhnev. The film is unlike the works of German’s father in that it occasionally stoops to sentimentality. The director includes a needless motif in which the broke writer asks his friends for money so he can buy his daughter a doll, and the film climaxes with Dovlatov proudly telling off a pompous arts committeeman. Still, I was so absorbed in German’s richly detailed (and largely idealized) vision of the Soviet past that I could overlook his lapses in good sense.
Outlaw King might be summarized as one big lapse in good sense for David Mackenzie (Asylum, Spread, Starred Up), one of the finest English-language directors to emerge in the past two decades. Viewers who have followed his unpredictable (and always perceptive) career will be shocked by how conventional this film is in its storytelling—the script, credited to five writers, follows a familiar war movie template, with the aggrieved Scottish king Robert Bruce (Chris Pine, returning to his usual bland self after delivering such nuanced work in Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water) suffering indignity at the hands of English imperials, rounding up fighters, and engaging the occupying army in combat. Almost none of the characters are particularly developed (the English villains are laughably one-note), and, most damningly, the movie rarely delivers compelling depictions of medieval combat. The battle scenes of Outlaw King are too chaotic to come off as either rousing or terrifying, suggesting that Mackenzie (who tends to do his best work with smaller ensembles) was simply overwhelmed by crowds.
There are just enough characteristically imaginative passages to make the film worthwhile. The opening sequence—which seems to transpire in an unbroken eight-minute shot—is perhaps the best in the entire picture, with Mackenzie’s roving camera communicating a sense of curiosity about the past that evokes such medieval epics as Andrei Rublev and Marketa Lazarová. In this scene, the film introduces its characters, setting, and central power dynamics with the fluidity of Mackenzie’s best work. Outlaw King loses that sense of fluidity soon after, the stunning long takes giving way to choppy editing (which makes me wonder if the director’s first cut of the film, which was 20 minutes longer than the present version, maintained the aesthetic of the opening scene), but Mackenzie still manages to assert his artistic personality through the relationship between Robert and his wife Elizabeth. King Edward of England marries off Elizabeth, his goddaughter, to Robert early in the film to improve English-Scottish relations. The political relationship quickly disintegrates, but Elizabeth and Robert grow to love each other—in part because Elizabeth demands that Robert treat her like an equal in their partnership. This sort of enlightened romance may seem highly unlikely within a medieval setting, but it provides a welcome antidote to the chauvinism one usually encounters in films that take place in this period.
Outlaw King also stands in contrast to many medieval films (The Seventh Seal, Rublev, Perceval) in that it doesn’t valorize the role of Christianity in pre-modern Europe; Robert remains the film’s hero even though he has no respect for religion. In one scene, he kills a political rival in a church; in another, his men slay a bunch of English soldiers observing a Palm Sunday service. Such moments speak to the brutality of the medieval era, showing that, for some men, Christianity was nothing more than window dressing on lives determined by brute force. I wished for more sturdy insights like these; generally speaking, the film’s most interesting historical details tend to arrive in cutaway shots, which make enough of an impression to remind viewers of Mackenzie’s considerable talent. Here’s hoping his next feature will be less compromised than this one. v