By Marc S. Sanders
In Scotland, in the year 1713, Robert Roy MacGregor, the chief of the Clan MacGregor, protects his people from cattle thieves while trying to endure against starvation and minimal resources. Rob Roy was a leader but never looking to herald a cause. He just wanted to live day by day with his clan, along with his wife Mary and their two children.
Michael Caton-Jones directs Rob Roy with Liam Neeson as the title character and Jessica Lange in a strong performance as Mary. The film doesn’t move with the sense of sweeping adventure that I was expecting. However, that’s the point. Caton-Jones shoots Alan Sharp’s screenplay as a Rob Roy reluctant to rebel or wage war against a selfish monarchy that rules Scotland.
James Graham, Marquess of Montrose (the always effective John Hurt) agrees to lend Robert 1000 pounds to be paid back with interest. Rob is most grateful for the assistance that can help his clan. However, when Rob’s trusted friend Alan (Eric Stoltz) picks up the money, he is brutally murdered on his way back by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth, in maybe his best role ever).
Montrose, unaware of what has truly occurred, carries no sympathy for Rob’s predicament and obligates him to the original contract. Eventually, it becomes ugly as Montrose permits Archibald to carry out violent intimidation including slaughtering the clan’s cattle and burning down Rob’s home as well as raping Mary.
Rob Roy moves at a slow pace at times, but that doesn’t take away from brilliant characterizations. Roth as Archibald is a blazing villain. He’s introduced as a snobbish brat dressed to the nines though living off the prosperity of the mother who sent him to Montrose for a better royal upbringing. He carries an effeminate way about him in his long, curled, flowing wigs and garish pink and blue aristocratic wardrobes. He is a bastard though, yet a master swordsman. Like many great scene stealing performances before, Tim Roth has just the right timed expressions for the camera. Caton-Jones captures every best shot of Roth’s presence. Tim Roth, at the very least, deserved his Oscar nomination. I couldn’t get enough of him.
Jessica Lange gives another reason why she is such a celebrated actor for women. She picks smart roles over and over again. I was going into the film thinking she would be playing the dutiful wife and mere damsel. However, as Mary MacGregor she’s incredibly strong before and after she is victimized. She is torn with conflict to share the whole truth with Rob as to what has occurred to her. How will Rob respond? Will it make it worse for him with the monarchy? Will he feel ashamed of Mary? A fascinating character piece.
Brian Cox appears as Killearn, Montrose’s aid and factor. Yet, he is also secretly serving to Archibald’s underhandedness. He’s quite good in his role too.
Liam Neeson is fine as Robert Roy MacGregor; tall, built and athletic. He looks like a real hero. However, I’m not sure if I got a dense enough character from Alan Sharp’s script. Much of the film only comes alive when the other performers are on stage, like Hurt, Cox and especially Lange and Roth.
I was always aware of the famous sword fight in the film and it is quite spectacular. However, maybe hearing the hype over all these years watered down my expectations. The choreography is spectacular and often it really is Neeson and Roth in the moment; not stunt doubles. Yet, I remain more impressed with the work of Errol Flynn and scenes from The Princess Bride and The Empire Strikes Back.
Rob Roy takes some patience to watch. A very good film but not necessarily wall to wall action to consider it a popcorn flick. Watch the film for the performances and take in the gorgeous countryside footage.
I recommend it.