An old-fashioned epic about honor, righteousness and fidelity, “Rob Roy” comes fully to life only when it is portraying outright treachery and venality. This handsome, not unappealing look at a Scottish legend of nearly 300 years ago is too solemn, wooden and dour for its own good, and feels oddly of another era. Contempo audiences are unlikely to find much to relate to in this historically based Highlands saga, relegating it to probable also-ran status despite prestige cast names.
The real Robert Roy MacGregor was a cattle drover and sometime thief who, upon becoming a fugitive in 1713 due to a dispute with his former benefactor, the Marquis of Montrose, emerged as something of a folk hero to the poor local clansmen.
There is no doubt that Liam Neeson, with his flowing locks, hacked-rock profile and kilt, cuts an imposing figure as he strides across the mountains to apprehend some cattle poachers. Nor is there any reason to suspect that he is anything other than a loving husband to his lusty wife, Mary (Jessica Lange), a good father to their two sons and a decent risk when he arranges to borrow T1, 000 from Montrose (John Hurt) to purchase more cattle he knows he can sell at a considerable profit.
But when Rob Roy falls victim to the evil scheming of Montrose’s factotums Killearn (Brian Cox) and Cunningham (Tim Roth), the latter a foppish, obsequious British opportunist who murders Rob Roy’s friend McDonald (Eric Stoltz) and steals the money, the humorlessly dashing Scot would appear, by virtue of his now unpayable debt, to earn the status of a mere nuisance to the imperious Montrose.
Instead, he becomes the object of a pointedly violent manhunt led by the sadistic Cunningham, who orders a rape-and-pillage expedition on the family farm after Rob Roy takes to the hills. A number of skirmishes and little outrages follow, with Rob Roy escaping the noose and managing an impressive escape before arranging to settle things once and for all in direct combat with the heinous Cunningham.
Lacking is any clear sense of Rob Roy’s importance beyond the specific matter of fighting back against the rather arbitrary nastiness of Montrose and the outright villainy of Killearn and Cunningham. Unlike Robin Hood and his ilk, the man carries the banner for no concrete cause, nor does he have any particular ambition for his people other than those directly affected by the events at hand.
Rather, Rob Roy makes no end of high-minded speeches about the importance of honor and the sanctity of his word, and these quickly become wearisome. Neeson delivers them all with an unvarying earnestness and sincerity.
By contrast, the scenes involving Tim Roth’s unctuous Cunningham are a wild delight. Starting out as a sniveling courtier in fancy wigs and dress with the feyest of put-on aristocratic manners, Cunningham wins favor with Montrose, and so becomes the man in charge of apprehending Rob Roy, a task he pursues with devilish relish. The character manages to keep topping himself in the area of amoral acts, running the gamut of sins.
Roth was an inspired choice for the role, and the actor sustains the guise of sneering, disdainful impudence with a glee that is positively contagious. He is also brilliantly effective in the film’s key sword fights. The character throws his opponents off guard with his languid, literally limp-wristed poses, then springs into action with shockingly quick thrusts and parries with the blade.
This works best of all in the final showdown with Rob Roy, where the contrast between the two men’s fighting styles is akin to a lithe panther vs. a hulking bear. Stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong and fight arranger William Hobbs merit major kudos for their work here.
Native Scotsmen are heavily represented on the creative side, most notably by writer Alan Sharp and director Michael Caton-Jones. The straight-faced speeches notwithstanding, Sharp has written a script full of beautiful language, wry wit and loads of bawdy scatological detail, the latter unusual in a costume epic.
Much of the script’s invention will sail right over the heads of many viewers , at least in the U.S., partly due to unfamiliarity with the accents and political references, and also thanks to the very standard, traditional tack taken by Caton-Jones. While at times wanting in the area of plotting, Sharp’s sometimes sassy screenplay called for a more irreverent, live-wire approach, but instead has become solemnified, a problem exacerbated by Carter Burwell’s overly grandiose score.
Lange supplies the film with a heady dose of earthiness, even if much of her time is spent being victimized or waiting for her husband to return. Cox is on the money as the duplicitous Killearn, and Hurt’s Montrose provides Roth’s character with a role model for how to live a life of corrupt comfort in one’s advancing years.
Shot entirely in the gorgeous Scottish Highlands, pic is stately and mostly lovely to look at, although many ofthe night scenes are quite dark indeed.
“Rob Roy” has its diversions, but they are unfortunately outweighed by some heavy baggage that contains not enough of substance.