Image B Sound B
starring Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt, Tim Roth
screenplay by Alan Sharp
directed by Michael Caton-Jones
by Jefferson Robbins Did they name a cocktail after William Wallace? I didn't think so. In this, the later Scots hero Robert Roy MacGregor has the advantage, as he does in the film drawn from his story. Rob Roy beat Mel Gibson's Braveheart into theatres by more than a month, and it's the superior product. But what challenge could Michael Caton-Jones's courtly, well-crafted tale of swash and buckle--his only film set in his home country--mount against the bludgeoning, ass-baring, gay-defenestrating fever dream of a megastar who yearned to be stretched on the rack in imitation of his Lord?
The settings of the two films--Scotland chafing under stern English governance, four hundred years apart--make an obvious demand for comparison, as does the device of a suffering-ennobled tribe turning a lone champion into its avatar of revolt. Yet each movie is also about masculine pride attacked via the soft underbelly of family. Braveheart's plot detonator is the violation of the hero's wife; in Rob Roy, the violation of the hero's wife, Mary (Jessica Lange), is held secret to keep the hero from losing his cool and going the Full Gibson. Not that he would--MacGregor (Liam Neeson) is a born leader, a quick blade, and a ready match for the baronial forces arrayed against him. His strength lies in the love of family and, by extension, the clan, where his oppressors have no such wellspring.
Neeson's MacGregor is cast from the start as a Natural Man of honest dealing and rough-hewn nobility. His chivalry is true where that of his English sovereigns, the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) and his dandyish, sword-swinging nephew, Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), is a practiced, malevolent front. Rob and Mary, parents of two boys, own the only waterfront property out of their entire settlement, seemingly a whole latitude south from the main village. Rob's bracing naked dip in this private mere is D.H. Lawrence-ian, his clenches with Mary delightedly sexual and devoted. He's surrounded by friends and loved ones, in contrast to Cunningham's painted fop--lonely, outcast, and decrying love as "a dunghill." The English have wigs; the Scots have hair, albeit the kind of feathery nigh-mullets that mark this as a mid-'90s epic. When cash fronted by Montrose for Rob's big-score cattle venture gets swiped by Cunningham and Montrose's oily majordomo Killearn (Brian Cox), Rob is expected to fork over the valuable acreage on which his clan scrapes out a living. His refusal, and his humiliation of Cunningham, brands him an outlaw.
Despite the broad Highlands canvas, the stakes and the story are largely personal, confined to MacGregor's fight to keep family and farm together whilst besieged by vipers. "The great man against all," Mary spitefully characterizes her husband's crusade. But it's not just a man's story--Mary must suffer Cunningham's violence, as well as find her own way to mend the family's fortunes and earn redress for the wrongs done to her. Though Rob Roy takes place too late to be called "Jacobean," the machinations of Cunningham, Killearn, and Mary display elements of the revenge play made famous during that era--and there is a King James in the wings. The best comparison between Rob Roy and Braveheart might be a matter of scale: William Wallace's self-immolating, blunt-force cry of freedom failed to deliver his people, so four centuries later men like MacGregor were left to match the overclass's deceit with native honour, their blades with bare hands. The only real victories are personal; Braveheart went for naught.
Rob Roy deploys its actors deftly, giving them gold in Alan Sharp's dialogue-driven screenplay. The lines are rich and chewy, and Hurt's Montrose gets to masticate some of the best. Of the dying, childless Queen Mary II, he says, "One would have hoped that a field so regularly ploughed might have yielded one good crop." The script's structure, too, is elegant: Cunningham's first-act dismissal of the Scottish claymore as "a cleaver" and MacGregor's early ploy of slicing his own hand on an opponent's sword both pay rewards in the final reel. As for Neeson, I can't recall a film that made better use of his leonine face and form--no, not even The Chronicles of Narnia. He's the tallest man in any scene, overshadowing friends like a benevolent papa and advancing on foes like a wall of murder. Carter Burwell's score feels locked in by the '90s neo-Celtic métier, but twinges of inventiveness set it apart, not least in the pastoral title theme. (The hero's refrain is familial, not martial.) And the marriage of image and music in the pursuit and murder of MacGregor's kinsman Alan MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) makes me wonder if Peter Jackson cribbed it for Faramir's doomed charge in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
MGM's Blu-ray release of Rob Roy seems to muddy up the already grey scenery with some grain-spiking edge enhancement. There's something astigmatic in its panoramic shots of the Highlands, shadows buzz with not-so-subtle noise, and although costumes and the more verdant scenery are gratifyingly vibrant, human complexions are far less enlivened here than in other BD transfers I've seen. Still, this 2.35:1, 1080p presentation is a massive upgrade on the DVD, which came out during that format's infancy and hasn't aged well. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio leaves spoken dialogue in the front while throwing score and Foley around the room. My disc intermittently dropped the voices altogether while keeping other sound elements status quo. This happened on four separate viewings, though never at the exact same point in the film. I suppose it's too much to ask for high-end curation from a bankrupt studio, but even the floating-head cover treatment on the keepcase feels 'Shopped together on the cheap. There are no extras on board save the usual Blu-ray plethora of languages. It's amazing to me that they'll translate a movie like Rob Roy into Magyar, of all tongues, but not Gaelic. Originally published: March 24, 2011.