ROB ROY (UK, 1995) ***. 1/5 Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Written by Alan Sharp. Produced by Peter Broughan & Richard Jackson. Cinematography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editing, Peter Honess. Production design, Assheton Gorton. Costumes, Sandy Powell. Music, Carter Burwell. Cast: Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Brian Cox, et al. A United Artists release, 134 minutes. Rated R (Rape, violence, sex, language).
Like the recent "Queen Margot, " "Rob Roy" is an action-romance historical swashbuckler. Unlike the French film, "Rob Roy" puts love ahead of sex (though there is plenty of it). And while "Margot" was a free, heated up adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas novel, nowhere do the makers of "Rob Roy" mention the novel by Sir Walter Scott. The script has nothing to do with it. Instead, it is "based on the life of Robert Roy MacGregor, " with which it takes many liberties.
The film succinctly sets the stage with this message: "At the dawn of the 1700s, famine, disease and the greed of great noblemen were changing Scotland forever. With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries-old clan system was slowly being extinguished. The story symbolizes the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honor."
It is 1713 - one year before the death of Queen Anne. Robert Roy (Liam Neeson, born in Ireland) is the leader of the shrinking MacGregor clan. He takes care of his people by being a cattle drover for James Graham, Marquis ( pronounced "MAr-quiss") of Montrose (John Hurt).
Rob and his wife Mary of Comar (Jessica Lange, born in Minnesota), are passionately in love and just as passionately into frequent, spontaneous sex. (They have only two children. What's their secret for contraception?)
Rob borrows £1, 000 from the hard Marquis for a profitable cattle deal that will also benefit the lender. Killearn (Brian Cox) and Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), respectively Montrose's factor (the agent who handles his business affairs) and protege-cum-henchman, steal the money from the carrier in an atrocious way.
Roy, refusing Montrose's dishonorable solution, becomes a marked man, a hunted outlaw. Cunningham leads Montrose's men on savage, disgusting reprisals. Truth and honor will prevail however. I'll say no more about the plot . Skipping ahead pages, especially in a mostly breathless combination of adventure and characterizations, is sinful.
In the first 45 minutes, besides Rob Roy's family and friends, we meet several dour (pronounced "door" not "dower") characters. Highest ranking is the old Duke of Argyll (pronounced "Argyle") who despises the Marquis who in turn detests the Duke.
These are men of few words, with John Hurt getting the most from a minimalist performance, one whose technique reminds me of his so different Winston Smith in "1984." It is also entirely unlike his Dr. Stephen Ward in "Scandal, " director Caton-Jones' first feature.
Dundee-born Brian Cox is familiar in the U.K. but unknown in the U.S. Even his controversial political thriller "Hidden Agenda" was way under-exposed to the public. As Killearn he has more complexity than like roles in most movies.
Archibald Cunningham is an English bastard (literally and figuratively), a multi-sexual, multi-faced, innately cruel adventurer who verges on sociopathy. He puts on foppish, mincing, effeminate manners. He is offensive, unlike the famous, witty pretend-dandy Leslie Howard of "Scarlet Pimpernel" fame.
But what a consummate swordsman he is, even for jaded audiences! His first duel is almost humorous. The second, pitting his blade artistry against a raging bull of an adversary, goes directly into the Pantheon of movie duels.
Tim Roth's Archie - as his equally villainous accomplice Killearn calls him -- steals the show as evil personified and evil aware of itself. In bed with the naive maid Betty (Vicki Masson) he tells her: " I am a fortune seeker. I seek favors of powerful men. I am as much a whore as my mother ever was."
Close to most older movies, "Rob Roy" has a clear-cut gallery of hissable villains and a plethora of heroes, the latter led by Rob and Mary who keep growing in stature, forcefulness, presence and dignity.
The MacGregor clan's motto is "S'rioghal mo Dheam" "Royal is my Blood" -- a perfect description of the way Liam Neeson plays Rob, as a physically and morally strong man who is tall, walks tall and is faithful to himself, his principles and his people.
Jessica Lange, in her ever-growing gamut of both decipherable and private expressions, expressiveness, speech and body language, may seem to upstage Neeson. But that would be comparing kindred yet different characters. Although Lange's Scots accent may not, like her character, be above reproach, her performance is.
The entire cast is excellent. "Cast" includes the Highlands, so well-photographed, so very appealing from rocks to lochs, in all kinds of weather, so different from the romantic Alpine landscape that became the touchstone of Nature's beauty in the 18th century.
Some flaws. There is sometimes an overabundance of landscapes. A cross-cutting exercise between a foul deed and a clan gathering, both in progress, is artsy. The score can be too repetitious and portentous -- but there is also some beautiful singing by Karen Matheson. Rob Roy's hardiness and resistance to physical injuries is as mythical as that of heroes in Westerns.
I suggest to future viewers that they not be made impatient by the slow tempo of the first part. When major action and suspense come in (and last for the balance of the film) you realize that this deliberate rhythm has actually done a very good job of clarifying people and events, and allowing you to follow the film without confusion.