[Because of the age of this film, there are more than the usual number of spoilers below. Caveat lector.]
It’s unusual for films to offer excellent direction. It’s rare for them to feature superb acting, and even less often are they built from outstanding writing. To do that while offering a theme that is important, timeless, and dramatized without preaching is almost never found. To find all these aspects in a film raised to a high pinnacle of art is nearly without precedent.
That is what the 1995 film Rob Roy achieves. The net result is a combination of fine entertainment and superb portrayal of artistic values.
In short order, conniving Killearn (his ‘factor’ or accountant) and bastard whoremonger and wastrel gambler, the foppish Archie, cook up a scheme to steal the money and blame the theft on Rob’s close friend, Alan McDonald.
Their plan succeeds and Alan is secretly dispatched in one of the many dramatic scenes of the film. Unable to find him, Rob asks Montrose for an additional loan, promising to turn over all profits. Instead, offended by Rob’s refusal to bear false witness against his political enemy, the Duke of Argyll, Montrose orders Rob jailed in the toll booth.
Rob escapes at once and Montrose orders Archie to capture the “too-proud Highlander.” What follows is a series of events that that will see Rob’s home burned, his wife raped, and his friends slaughtered. In the final sequence, Rob and Archie battle it out in a sword fight that is one of the more unusually choreographed in the cinematic history of such scenes.
Written by Alan Sharp, the screenplay is among the most well crafted ever. A large claim, true. But watch the film and you will discover how it never flags. You will see, too, how it seamlessly weaves together its fairly simple main plot with a half-dozen smaller ones and contains dozens of sharply drawn, quick character sketches. You will hear witty, insightful, and historically well-informed dialog that sounds neither faux-historical stagey nor anachronistically modern.
For example, Archie is bedding one of Montrose’s serving wenches, an apparently unconnected subplot of a few scenes that serve to reveal Archie’s callous character and Killearn’s servile and calculating nature. Yet this relationship is later used to provide Rob with information that leads to the climactic sequence involving all those characters and others.
The dialog is witty, moves the plot forward while clearly drawing its distinct and interesting characters, and even reaches artistic depth without being heavy handed or preachy. There are literally dozens of examples.
In the opening sequence Rob and his men are chasing cattle thieves who have stolen from Montrose, Rob’s ‘employer’. Instead of slaughtering the thieves outright, Rob goes to talk to them. He confronts the scurvy leader, yet treats him with dignity offering to let the band go if Tom will agree to one-on-one combat. “There’s a price to pay for being a leader of men, Tom,” Rob tells him.
When Killearn tries to discuss his plan with Archie, on whom he’s just informed to Montrose about his gambling debts, Archie chokes the factor, saying, “You are a carbuncle and I will squeeze the pus out of you.” We cheer even for the villain Archie because we see that it’s true.
In the scene when the servant reveals to Archie that she is pregnant and that she loves him, he tells her, “Love is but a dung heap, Betty, and I am but a cock that climbs upon it to crow.”
After Archie rapes Rob’s wife and asks her to think of him when she next sees her husband, she tells him, “I will think of you dead, until my husband makes you so.” Pause. “Then I will think of you no more.”
The direction helmed by Michael Caton-Jones matches and makes first-rate use of the writing.
For example, the film opens with a sweet and melancholy Gaelic tune by Carter Burwell, composer of the film’s superb score. The filmmaker takes us right to the sweep of Scotland’s majestic Highlands and zeros in on Rob and his men. We know at once when we are, where we are, and who we are with. And the director makes us glad to be there.
Scene setting immediately gives way to plot, character development, and theme. We know the kind of man Rob is by his interactions with his men and the thieves. Soon we see an excellently staged swordplay contest between Archie and Guthrie, a local lout.
Within the the first ten minutes we know the film’s world and main characters, and have hints of what is to come.
There is foreshadowing of the final scene in the form of a well-staged contest between Archie and Guthrie, both blades for hire. More foreshadowing of an important moment at the film’s end comes when Guthrie challenges Rob to a duel in a pub, pretending it is for having killed Tom. “Kin of your’n?” Rob asks. “Near enough,” says Guthrie. “I shagged his sister once.”
Rob, always reluctant to fight for no reason, asks “first cut?” without looking up from his table. “Aye,” Guthrie answers. Rob swipes his own hand over Guthrie’s drawn blade and declares, “Well done,” then stands to tower over the bully. “Some other time, when we’re both sober,” he announces, then leaves, stooping out the door of the crowded room. That is excellent use of setting combined with great staging and focus.
The director well understands the value of a good scene cut, too. When Mary, Rob’s staunch wife, visits Argyll, the Duke declares “He is indeed a man blessed by good fortune.” The camera cuts at once to a captive, purple-faced Rob being dragged along the road behind Archie’s horse.
The pacing is also first-rate. Often, between the major action sequences or scenes of dramatic dialog there are short, peaceful interludes. This technique, when well implemented, lets the audience rest its emotions before the next sequence and rise in tension. At the same time, they’re never so long as to let the film flag.
That tension comes in the form of a constant drive toward the climax. The director lets his actors carry the emotional burdens and speak their lines in a believable way. Nothing is forced. Yet, never does the camera relax and just show us scenery or costume or people for their own sake. Everything is used and used well.
Every performer delivers in the movie, too, and almost all are outstanding.
John Hurt’s Montrose is by turns vain, cold, touchy, and outraged. Little-known Andrew Keir’s Argyll is dignified, zesty, and equally outraged, by the slimy Montrose and his machinations. Eric Stolz is fully convincing and masterful at portraying the frustrated Alan who wants to go the Americas but stands firmly by his friend, Rob. Brian Cox as Killearn is a master acting class study in obsequious evil. Tim Roth as Archie is a bantam cock of a callous “bastard abroad, seeking his fortune” and never misses a step in expression or movement.
Even the weakest member of the cast, Jessica Lange, does a fine job. She is clearly uncomfortable with the Scottish burr and, at 46, is at least 10 years too old for the part and looks it. But her considerable acting skill largely compensates.
She portrays well the strong realist partner of Rob, the man driven by honor. She is superb in the post-rape scene when she harangues Rob’s young brother not to reveal her violation to avoid his falling into Archie’s baited trap. She tells him, “If I can bear it to be done, you can bear to remain silent,” and we feel every ounce of her immense pain and inner conflict.
But the centerpiece of the film and the finest performance is unquestionably Liam Neeson as Robert Roy MacGregor. In the classic mold of film heroes he completely embodies the sense of honor that is the movie’s basic theme. This is a man of thoughtful intelligence, heartfelt compassion, immense integrity, earned pride, and an unquenchable sense of justice. Each of these qualities is brought out deftly, but unmistakably in scene after scene.
Best of all, the film rises far above stellar entertainment, important as that is. It is one of only a handful of films to provide that while exploring a deep theme: the value of honor. That theme is seamlessly combined with the depiction, and ultimate triumph of justice over evil. It does both without a trace of apologetic saccharine or cynical snigger of the “it’s just a movie” attitude so common in films today.
it manages the feat in a film not yet 15 years old is all the more
remarkable. It will continue to appear just as remarkable as the film
is seen 50 years from now.
Jeffrey Perren is a professional writer. His current novel (in progress), The Power of Civilization, is the story of an entrepreneur struggling to build a revolutionary new type of nuclear power plant. He maintains a blog at ShavingLeviathan.blogspot.com where he discusses contemporary culture and politics from a pro-reason perspective.