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Rob Roy Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 26, 2011

    Rob Roy Review

    Back in 1995, I was a fierce advocate of Mad Mel’s epic opus of English-bashing, with Braveheart being the rousing pinnacle of hack ‘n’ slash Highland derring-do. Like many people at the time, I found Michael Caton-Jones’ altogether quieter, more intimate tale of dastardly Sassenachs putting the tyrannical hurt on those hardy heathens of the heather and thistle north of the border, Rob Roy, to be something of a let-down in comparison to Gibbo’s offal-hurling, battle-stuffed monolith. To me, it lacked that mythical grandeur, the ferocious charisma of the lead character, the large-scale spectacle and the sheer heart-stirring, air-punching abandon that had so propelled the bloody tale of William Wallace to Oscar-nabbing victory and much critical and popular acclaim. Reviews, at the time, didn't seem to pay the film much respect, and although I've read some reappraisals over the years – unlike Braveheart which has suffered a few ironic little backlashes from time to time – Rob Roy seems to have turned its once less-forgiving audience around.

    And I've found that I have been swayed by its lilting and often sly charm, myself.

    To this end, I have revisited Rob Roy often, and found that I have appreciated the film's more leisurely and personalised saga of duelling personalities, emotional rage and conflicted honour with increasing satisfaction each time. In fact, I couldn't wait to get my mitts on the film when this US Region-free Blu-ray from MGM came down from the mountains. So, grab hold of that claymore, hoist your man-skirt and toss that … well, you get the picture … because we're about to go charging about the highland with all the mullet-swinging valour that we can muster!

    Rock-voiced star Liam Neeson is a fabulous screen personality. He can also be a terrific actor too – at times - though I find that it is usually just his cinematic charisma that serves him best. Wonderful as a character in an ensemble piece – The Bounty, Love Actually (yes, really), Schindler's List and The A-Team (!) - he is much less dynamic or capable when thrust into the limelight as a leading man. He may have given it his best shot in Star Wars Episode 1, and is infinitely better than Ewan MacGregor … but only the much more recent thriller, Taken (which I love, by the way), elevated his individual profile by offering him something coldly intense and brutally memorable in its own right. It would seem that sensitivity without some violence on-the-side doesn't bring out the best in him. An odd turn in the existential Western, Seraphim Falls, opposite fellow Irishman Pierce Brosnan, didn't work at all for me – Neeson just couldn't cut it as Confederate major turned avenging cowboy. Yet, when we look at Rob Roy, we find the pugilistic actor at his most iron-clad, and also his most captivating. We may love to playfully knock Gibson's Aussie/Yank interpretation of his Celtic crusader, but Neeson, no more Scottish himself, does his chivalric role proud. He looks and, crucially, sounds the part. He carries his dignity with resilient and literate bravado. His intense love for his wife, Mary (Jessica Lange), is the stuff of Catherine Cookson swooning, and speaks of heartfelt, soul-revealing confession, and although almost certainly clichéd to within an inch of its own homespun arc, is also profoundly chin-wobbling during the story's more agonised stretches of mutual despair.

    As the noble-minded, stout-hearted Robert Roy MacGregor, protector and inspirational clan leader to a hamlet of toiling, erstwhile tinkers and tillers, Neeson strides long and tall across the hills and cuts a dash in kilt, tartan and big, billowing white shirt. He hefts a mighty claymore and is quick with a dirk, but his adherence to a code of honour is apt to prove his undoing when he crosses paths with the prissy, Jacobite-hating Marquis of Montrose (a beauty-spot adorned John Hurt) over the apparent theft of a thousand pounds that was supposed to be part of an investment loan. Of course, Rob Roy, who has played no part in this act of duplicitous robbery, is being set up for a mighty fall … but the oppressive rule of the land means that such fair-handed treatment as trust is not for him, nor his people, and, in that time-honoured tradition of the honest being wronged by indecent and uncaring authority, Rob Roy is compelled to take up arms and fight to clear his name and to bring to justice the real culprit. It is a tale of honour, tragedy, wrath and revenge, told in a gritty, mud-spattered Shakespearean fashion that is surprisingly weighty with dialogue and somewhat less than conventional in terms of mayhem. Yet this plays in the film's favour. You want blood and guts and heart-swelling speeches, head on over to Gibson's brawl-fest. Caton-Jones, working from a screenplay from Alan Sharp that adheres reasonably closely to the folkloric interpretation of the real-life exploits of Rob Roy, tries to grind moralities over the millstone, to push and chip away at the resolve of this unimpeachable hero and to provide, not so much as a history lesson, but the tale of a minor conflict painted against a staggering backdrop of social contradictions, hypocrisy and diabolical irony. It is apparent that Neeson's predilection for mentor-roles – he is Hollywood's go-to man for wisdom, sage-like advice and brusque tutelage in everything from the intricate workings of midichlorians to how to perform the expert prison-break – is forged here. He is patrician, land-owner and shining example to his people. Bleating on about honour being a man's gift to himself, he is the voice of the people – their standard and their saviour. Along with his portrayal of Michael Collins, casting directors would use this as the springboard that ensured Neeson would provide manly tips in the ear of many a fledgling hero.

    But the wonderful thing is that much of Rob's notions and plans go awry due to forces beyond his control, and it is how the rugged hero deals with fate's trip-wires and banana-skins that makes the character, and the film, so interesting.

    The thing is that we have such an amazing cast gathered around him, that Neeson simply has to shine if we are even to notice him amongst them all. People like the great John Hurt, who is majestically arrogant and toe-curlingly superior as the greed-blinded Marquis of Montrose, and both Brian Cox (who would also appear in Braveheart as Uncle Argyll) and Andrew Keir, the only genuine Scots in the main cast, chew up the frame as much as the scenery with fabulously drawn portrayals of, respectively, a snivelling ignoble opportunist, and a laird whose powers are being gradually whittled away from beneath him yet still clings to his lineage-bequeathed honour and integrity with spiteful gusto. But no-one could argue that the man who walks away with every single scene that he is in, and snaffles the entire film from under the noses of his thespic cohorts in the process, is Tim Roth. One of the best actors of his generation, Roth had given formidable performances in Made In England, Vincent & Theo, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (opposite friend Gary Oldman), Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and was fast-becoming an actor of incredible range and vitality. He was hopelessly miscast in The Incredible Hulk, though, as was Edward Norton. But as the despicable Archibald Cunningham, Montrose’s foppish and deadly right-hand man, Roth simply excels. It must have taken some nerve to take on the role of the sneering, effete and devoutly evil dandy. No matter that he is a wanton womaniser and someone who enjoys bullying, belittling and antagonising his prey, his cavalier apparel (wigs and frills) and savoir-faire make him an unmitigated ponce. With his camp gestures and dainty deportment, he even seems like an aristocratic landlubbing variant on Captain Jack Sparrow. He may bed wenches left and right, and even take the utmost pleasure in putting Jessica Lange violently over the second kitchen-table in her filmic career, but we are always shouldering doubts about his masculinity, especially when we catch his eyes appraising the rear view of Montrose's African servant-boy. Roth's mannerisms are pitch-perfect for the snobbish assassin – a genuflection here, a theatrical tilt of the head there – yet he is as deadly as a cobra, and just as nimble, just as quick to strike. His enjoyment of others' distress is all-too apparent and he is, indeed, the strangest combination of pampered cock-of-the-walk and callous, scheming murderer since Martin Landau's closet-hugging mobster in North By Northwest and those two mincing hit-men, Mr. Witt and Mr. Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever. Yet, he is thoroughly formidable and you just know that your first irresistible mocking of him … would also be your last. Although he was the best thing about James Gray's really rather shoddy drama-thriller Little Odessa, which came out at the same time as Rob Roy, Tim Roth would gain a very deserving Oscar nomination for this performance here, and he would go on to essay another utterly spellbinding villain in the otherwise exceedingly poor Planet Of The Apes re-imagining from Tim Burton.

    This is a part that could have been disastrous if miscalculated. But Roth is sublime, imbuing every moment with smarm, egotistical malevolence, two-faced loyalty and a barrage of salacious and sanctimonious claptrap. I like the fact that this performance from Archie could also be just an act that he uses to help himself fit in with the pompous circles of nobility in which he moves, or merely to deflect suspicion from his cruder motives and obsessions. So when the wig comes off, it is tempting to think that the real Archibald Cunningham has been revealed, but the character is such a Machiavellian enigma that even his dismissal of airs and graces amongst certain company could also be another layer of his cunning disguise.

    It is great to see Andrew Keir return to the screen, although the former Professor Quatermass (from Hammer's excellent Quatermass And The Pit, as well as the atmospheric Blood From The Mummy's Tomb) looks mighty odd and almost vulturish without that beard (a bit like a Terrahawk!), and his principled Duke of Argyll is an interesting sideline protagonist in the developing feud. Familiar TV face, Gilbert Martin, supplies some more bestial villainy as the blade-happy thug, Will Guthrie. Bested by Archie Cunningham in the film's excellent introduction to the nest of skulduggery, his rank and sweaty discord and mouthful of molars so grim that even a zombie would ashamed to open his maw, he brings that lesser pedigree of miscreant to the table that MacGregor must face. On the other side of the fence, and furnished with fiery red hair and beard, Eric Stolz is transformed into a highlander, and that cocky little Michael J. Fox-look is lost amid a heap of heathen bristle. As MacDonald, Rob's most trusted companion, and the unfortunate man given the task of bringing back the thousand Scottish pounds to MacGregor that sets the whole sorry business in motion, Stolz is allowing his likeable character to be, quite sadly, a short-lived one. The twist that occurs with MacDonald is clever because it provides a sense of ambiguity to settle over Rob's remaining group, at the same time as fuelling our sense of the injustice of it all. What I will say, however, is that the “merry men” who surround Rob Roy, who actually became known as the Scottish Robin Hood, blend too well into the background as the film progresses, pretty much leaving their leader to fend for himself. When we first see the group together, as they pursue cattle-rustlers across the countryside, there is a definite belief that they are a close-knit team, and we would surely like to see them going into action as a unit again … though this is not to be. Yet, there is still able support from Ewan Stewart as the pragmatic Coll who, at least, understands the delicate tightrope that Rob is walking in his campaign against the Marquis.

    Of course, it isn't just the blokes who go roamin' in the gloamin' in Rob Roy.

    A lot thought Jessica Lange miscast in the role of Rob's gutsy, devoted wife, the feisty and tortured Mary. But with expert dialect coaching to attain the Hebridean burr that Caton-Jones desired, she brings an earthy ardour and a determined sense of rural mystique to the part, anchoring the reasons why Rob has such a fierce loyalty and an undying commitment. There is a definite hint of Highlander about the numerous scenes in which Neeson strides manfully over the fields, or skinny-dips in the loch as a preamble to some passion in the brisk Scottish air, reminding us of the immortal Connor MacLeod always returning to his one true love as the years whistle by. There is, indeed, an awful lot of big farewells and even bigger returns in this film. But with Lange's committed portrayal of a woman who stands by her man in spite of the most heinous acts committed against her, we completely understand the motivations that Neeson's grave tones regularly inform us of, and of the crucial aspect of having to defend one's honour in the face of such barbaric provocation. Lange brings all the requisite passion to the part, and a more rugged attitude, and is far more believable than Catherine McCormack's admittedly less showy, but just as powerful a narrative catalyst, Murron, in Braveheart. After the pivotal scene in which Archie Cunningham throws down the gauntlet to MacGregor by assaulting Mary in his absence (more on this disturbing set-piece later), her reactions and bravery, a magnificent depiction of restraint, self-loathing, guilt and hatred all rolled into one, lingers long in the mind. I've heard people laughing at the scene of her washing Cunningham's filth from her body and commenting on some perceived over-acting both from Lange and from Brian McCardie, who plays Rob's hot-headed younger brother Alasdair who has failed to warn her of the approaching danger in time, but I don't get this at all. I find the scene between the two of them very difficult to watch for quite the opposite reason. The pain is almost tangible, and drips from the screen so palpably that it leaves a ghastly residue in the air. What makes it worse is the damnable etiquette emanating from Roth and Cox after the deed has been done. Their polite arrogance makes the whole affair even more corrosive. It works exceedingly well, though. You really want to climb into the screen and tear the two devious swine apart … which is precisely the emotion that Archie's deed is supposed to incite in his nemesis, and Caton-Jones is trying to foster in his audience. Manipulative, yes. But bloody effective.

    There is also some compelling work from Vicki Masson as Cunningham's disgraced servant-lover, Betty, another woman cursed by her association with his lorded-scum. But keep your eyes peeled for Jason Flemyng as one of Rob's hairy clansmen, and for Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter, amongst other things) who crops up here as what amounts to Moaning Morag!

    Michael Caton-Jones (Memphis Belle, This Boy's Life) is not an action director … and Rob Roy, despite its press-blurb, is not an action film. It was never meant to be, and this is one of the things people have often hurled against the story in the erroneous belief that it would be another First Blood or, inadvertently, another Braveheart. But there are still some grand set-pieces to help our hero achieve that renegade status of yore. Forgive the moment when, affronted by Montrose in the luscious manor grounds, MacGregor proves that he can be quicker on the uptake than Cunningham and amusingly puts him on the deck, and then lopes off in that ungainly, Frankenstein's Monster gait, straggly hair flopping about, because the hilltop skirmish, in the fog, between the aggrieved clansmen and the English usurpers is a great little sequence of high tension and tragedy. But the moment of excellence comes in the all-too-brief scene when, horribly beaten and having been dragged for miles across the countryside, and just about to be hanged from a bridge, our boy contrives to turn the tables on his arrogant persecutors and pulls a neck-throttling stunt that would be copied by Angelina Jolie in 2010's excellent Salt. Neeson is a big feller, and he is far clumsier here than we would see him as a Jedi or in Taken, but there is a galvanistic momentum whenever he suddenly leaps into action that you can really feel. This said, I can't help but giggle just a little when we hear him groaning and screaming as he goes over the waterfall – God help me, but he sounds the same as The Goodies as they tumble over the side of a cliff or whatever in the classic TV comedy!

    James Horner may have scooped all the musical accolades for Gibson’s heroic masterpiece, but Carter Burwell (Psycho III, A Knight's Tale) creates a tremendous score for Rob Roy that is, by turns, passionate, pictorial, thrilling, fully period-laced and achingly romantic. The inclusion of some authentic Gaelic songs – such as “Ailein Duinn” hauntingly performed by Capercaillie – adds to the heather-tumbling atmosphere of beautiful meadows, idyllic glens and sweeping valleys. A long-term collaborator with the Coen Brothers (True Grit, Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy etc), Burwell usually delivers soothing, lyrical and cyclic melodies that become hypnotic and softly bewitching. Here, he is able to combine the epic with the tender. The film does not contain any big battles but, utilising the pulse-racing beat of the Uillean pipes and some tub-thumping drums, he masterminds a bravura and highly exciting action/chase motif for when Rob makes his wild river escape, or when he and his men cause havoc with Archie's marauders. But there is his main theme that is appropriately luxurious and expansive, and becomes highly memorable. It can easily stand alongside other such other historical scores from the decade as the aforementioned Braveheart, Trevor Jones' The Last Of The Mohicans, Jerry Goldsmith's First Knight and John Barry's Dances With Wolves.

    The film is also highly witty in terms of its earthy dialogue. And yet it isn't the scoundrels and peasants siding with MacGregor who are to blame for this fruity diatribe of provocative gutter-speak. Oh no. Bend you ear to the surly admonitions and expletives from the gentry, and especially Brian Cox's heinous Killearn. A classic scene has Killearn arriving at Archie's chambers just as the serving wench he has just ravished – the poor Betty - is attempting to discretely leave. The wily Killearn casually slips a hand under her skirt and, after uttering some ribald insinuations that I will not repeat here, proceeds to awaken the exhausted Archie with a glistening finger under his nose. Cox's next line is, indeed, the sort of thing that can be best described as a rude awakening.

    This bawdiness and general disrespect for womanhood is brought to a vicious head with the notorious rape scene. Cut in the UK version, and still the subject of controversy here – even the British Blu-ray release has been delayed because of it, apparently – this US disc is uncensored. It is important to remember that the sequence, as troubling as it is, is actually vital to the film's story, and the deed is perpetrated as a deliberate challenge to Rob Roy, himself, and is not merely a despicable and cowardly act of warped evil. Knowing this does not lessen the impact, of course, and the scene certainly acts as a tonal game-changer for the plot that then unfolds.

    Caton-Jones may revel in the visual longeurs of the story he tells, but then again if you have such eye-seducing landscapes as these for your canvas and the artistry of DOP Karl Walter Lindenlaub to work with, then you would be just as fastidious in your compositions. In many ways the film can sit alongside Michael Mann's The Last Of The Mohicans (BD reviewed separately). Both tell a rip-roaring saga of the common-man forced to undergo the privations and misplaced authority of English, or English-enforced rule, and both depict the bastardisation of a way of life and the grit that must be employed to combat that invasion of such a yoke. The crackle of muskets and the livid red tunics of soldiery also fit in with this twinning, and both films weave a personal tale around mythical vistas that cannot fail to stir the spirit. Lindenlaub is patently in love with the mountains. Every chance he gets he fills the frame with them, and there is a true sense of fresh, chilly air that filters out from each and every scene. The opening shot of Rob and his men scurrying over the peaks is epic in itself. Likewise, Rob hoving into view over a distant ridge with yet more tales to tell his waiting bairns. But Caton-Jones and Lindenlaub are also unafraid to mask such views by providing some eerie mist-laced sequences too. A flotilla of Archie's men canoeing across the loch and just breaking through the white veil, and Rob and his clan seeking the safety of the mountain fog as redcoats blunder and blast their way after them. The camera effortlessly manages an eagle's eye-view of much of the more exhilarating scenes – those redcoats looking like a scattering of candy at times. And Lindenlaub and Caton-Jones are assured enough to leave the final fight simple and prosaic, rather than darting about and making swift edit-parries here and there.

    Ahhh, the final fight, then.

    It has been the vogue to embrace Rob Roy’s climactic duel as one the best that modern cinema has created. But the thing is, as much as it is primarily and correctly character-based and realistic – neither combatant performs anything that is alien to his natural skills, and the sequence plays out with a considered and an authentic absence of sensationalism – it is also a lacklustre finale for the grudge that we so want to see gloriously and thrillingly settled. Part of me feels a bit churlish making such comments about what is, to be honest, one of the most genuine looking bouts of bladed comeuppance that such a genre has thrown about the screen. But I come away from this sword-swinging smackdown with a feeling of disappointment every time. I like the way that Rob is not suddenly portrayed as being some master swordsman in the same league as Cunningham. I like the way that Neeson plays him as someone who is hopelessly outmatched and out-fought right from the word go. I even like the way that he is belittled and mocked (Archie's petulant look of serene confidence, and deliciously calm and insidious manner in which he merely points the tip of his rapier to within an inch of his opponent's face) and dropped, breathless and battered, to his knees in that typical Rocky-style of “down and almost out” before suddenly finding the strength the continue and win the day. But the sequence, despite all of this protracted battling for honour and revenge, fails to ignite any proper excitement or chest-beating appreciation of the score being settled and wrongs being righted. Although I shouldn’t do the Highland-fling of “compare and contrast” all over again – it isn’t fair, but it does feel relevant somehow – you think of Braveheart’s epochal climax, and your heart soars with pride and admiration at William Wallace’s last act of patriotic defiance … and there isn’t even a fight involved! Here, as beautifully choreographed as this duel is, and as painstakingly performed, with nary a stunt-double involved, by Neeson and, especially, Roth, the cumulative effect is downplayed, I feel. Having said this, Neeson looks genuinely knackered during the last portion, and Roth does an amazing stagger-and-lurch on a couple of clearly dead legs that simply demands you get up off your cushion and attempt it yourself.

    Rob Roy is a film to savour. It has a beautiful visual ambience that drips with period splendour. You get a majestic sense of the pride that such characters feel for kith and kin, hearth and home, and you really get that seething and addictive feeling of hatred for the villains of the piece that is all-too lacking in many dramas. Yet, without a doubt, it is Tim Roth’s sneering, pouting ponce who runs away with it all, and there isn't one second of his screen-time that he doesn't relish. And with him sniding and sniping like a venomous prima-dona all the while, we can't help but relish every second of his contemptuous performance too. Disney had a stab at the legend of Robert Roy MacGregor back in 1953, but the story has been granted more depth and soul by Michael Caton-Jones, who can boast that he brought to life one of the most memorable villains of the nineties.

    An excellent film that demands reappraisal.