May 2024

Rob Roy (1995)

DIRECTOR: Michael Caton-Jones


Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, John Hurt, Brian Cox, Eric Stoltz, Brian McCardie, Andrew Keir


There actually was a Robert Roy MacGregor, a Scottish cattleman whose battles against wealthy landowners made him a folk hero in 1700s Scotland, but the film by Michael Caton-Jones is only inspired by MacGregor’s story, and ultimately how much or little of it is based on fact is irrelevant to one’s enjoyment of the movie. Caton-Jones and screenwriter Alan Sharp, both fellow Scots, have used the historical MacGregor as the basis for a rousing, enthralling adventure. Anyone who enjoys Braveheart or The Last of the Mohicans should find Rob Roy to their liking.

The film is set in the Scottish Highlands in 1713. Highlander Robert Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson) watches over the cattle owned by the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt). But times are hard for Rob and his clan, and Rob secures a loan from the Marquis of 1,000 pounds to buy a herd and make a profit. When the money disappears, along with its bearer, Alan MacDonald (Eric Stoltz), some, including Rob’s brother Alasdair (Brian McCardie), suspect betrayal by MacDonald. But it’s actually a scheme hatched by Killearn (Brian Cox), an aid to Montrose, and Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), a preening dandy who’s more lethal than he looks. Montrose offers to forgive Rob’s debt if Rob will bear false witness to help him undermine his court rival, the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir), but Rob is a man who holds his honor as dearly as his wife (Jessica Lange) and children, and his refusal to cooperate sparks a violent conflict which pits him against the Marquis, and ultimately in a personal vendetta against Cunningham.

Strongly-drawn characterizations drive Rob Roy– a great hero, a great heroine, and a thoroughly hissable villain, acted with grandeur and passion. As embodied by Liam Neeson, Rob is a grand and imposing hero, a larger-than-life figure whose devotion to his word nearly seals his doom but maintains his unshakable sense of honor. Jessica Lange brings fire and conviction to Mary MacGregor, fashioning a woman who is far more than the supportive wife. Mary is a woman of determination and strong will, and we can believe her when she tells an enemy ‘I will think of you dead until my husband makes you so, and then I will think of you no more’.

And as far as movie villains ago, you can’t ask for a more detestable one than Tim Roth’s Archibald, whose foppish demeanor and effeminate mannerisms belie his swordfighting skill and casual viciousness. He’s a nasty piece of work, a sadistic rogue who rapes and kills without compunction, because he can, and Roth (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) plays the role to the hilt, strutting around with such malicious glee that he steals every scene he appears in, except when paired with Neeson or Lange, and then he holds his own. It’s a less-than-glamorous and sometimes underappreciated art to make your character this utterly loathsome, but Roth excels at doing exactly that, and his Archie has deservedly gone down as one of the great vile villains in movie history. John Hurt is the effete, decadent Montrose, who is willing to turn a blind eye to anything as long as it results in his own benefit, Brian Cox is suitably slimy as the venal Killearn, and Eric Stoltz has the small role of Alan MacDonald. Brian McCardie as Alasdair and Andrew Keir as the Duke of Argyll are of note.

At its essence, Rob Roy is a basic heroic story of good vs. evil, with the sides clearly aligned- the good guys are noble and virtuous, the bad guys are unambiguously despicable- and the old-fashioned swashbuckling aspect is of course a large part of the movie’s charm, but Rob Roy goes for a grittier, more realistic slant than we’re sometimes used to seeing. The characters’ wordy prose sounds truer to the period than the overly modern dialogue we often get in period dramas. Instead of the rolling green hills of Ireland standing in for Scotland that we got in Braveheart, Rob Roy was filmed on location in the Scottish Highlands, and the harsh, ruggedly beautiful landscape is important to the movie’s sense of atmosphere and place, well-captured by cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Credit is also due Carter Burwell’s stirring, evocative musical score. The violence and a scene of rape is depicted frankly, neither gratuitous nor glossed-over. Also case in point is the climactic swordfight, which, while exciting and satisfying, is remarkable for its unpolished realism and comparatively low-key presentation. In contrast to the fluid, elegant, effortless duels we are accustomed to seeing, the duel in Rob Roy is drawn-out and comes in spurts of energy broken by pauses for combat exhaustion. The result of all these elements is that Rob Roy is both an eminently satisfying adventure and something a little more realistic and a little less Hollywoodized than many entries in the same genre.

But at the bottom line, what makes Rob Roy succeed as well as it does is that it gives the audience what they want- romance, adventure, great heroes and great villains- and that’s what makes it an absorbing and satisfying movie experience.