In 1950, a failed push for Scottish home rule prompted four university students to carry out a daring stunt in the hopes of restoring national pride. The young turks, fearing their countrymen had become resigned to the fact that Scotland was simply “North Britain,” wanted to jolt the nation out of its complacency. The best way to do that – steal the Stone of Destiny, a lumbering block of sandstone that had been used during the coronation of Scottish monarchs for centuries, until it was ferried off to merry England by Edward I.
In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best plan but it worked, which is sort of the opposite trajectory of this movie. There’s a great sense of purpose here, a rousing feeling of national pride rippling through the decades. Watching post-referendum, and post-Outlander (sorry not sorry for my excessive references to that glorious show), I can’t help but to ascribe a more audacious political agenda to it. But Stone of Destiny isn’t a call to arms and maybe was never meant to be. Willing it to be more than it is doesn’t change the fact that even at its very best, this is merely a pleasant film.
In a way, it lacks the boldness of the event and of those who carried it out. Stone of Destiny never feels very consequential because it’s treated like a run-of-the-mill caper with added doses of nationalism. Inoffensive and bumbling, it’s a comedy of errors. Here are four students, led by Ian Hamilton (a likable Charlie Cox), who are about as clueless as they are patriotic, at least when it comes to stealing national treasures. They pose as tourists to case Westminster Abbey, where the stone is tucked snuggly into the Coronation Chair, and, since this is low-tech 1950s, just hide until the lights go out.
It’s an admirable endeavor, and there’s definitely a charm to the whole affair. At one point, Ian approaches politician John MacCormick (Robert Carlyle) for some funds and gets thrown out when he requests a measly £50 – for petrol and fish and chips. The overall tone of the movie is almost too genial and lighthearted though, and it rarely registers any real tension. Their run-ins with police officers and guards are both perfunctory and predictable, with nothing to fill in the gaps between those brief flashes of suspense. I kept waiting for a more sustained charge that mirrored all the enthusiasm and anxiety that they might have felt.
The attempt to cast the students as young idealists in conflict with adults comfortable with the status quo isn’t particularly strong either. Cox finds a hurt puppy in Ian as he gets upbraided by his father for wasting his life on dreams of devolution, but the script doesn’t give room for the actor to expand. Ian’s best friend (Billy Boyd) succumbs to practicality and withdraws when he realizes he could get kicked out of school, lose his fiancée, and be imprisoned. All are serious considerations, and all are dismissed in a pivot towards the students who do end up carrying out the theft. But even those characters, played by Kate Mara, Stephen McCole, and Ciaron Kelly, are only sketches that rely on one or two distinguishing traits. Guess it’s back to Outlander for my Scottish fix.
Prod: Andrew Boswell, Rob Merilees
Dir: Charles Martin Smith
Writer: Charles Martin Smith
Cast: Charlie Cox, Kate Mara, Robert Carlyle, Billy Boyd, Stephen McCole, Ciaron Kelly, Peter Mullan, Brenda Fricker
Time: 96 min
Country: United Kingdom