Rob Roy (1995)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

Rob Roy opens on a scene of kilted hunters pursuing a group of thieves. Robert Roy Macgregor (Liam Neeson) is the leader of the hunters, who we learn, is the protector of the cattle of the Marquis of Montrose. They come upon the thieves at the next morning and Rob Roy gives their leader a choice: personal combat with him or the gallows for thievery. Such is the price of leadership for the thief and the price of his personal code of honor for Rob Roy.

After the resolution of the situation with the thieves the scene shifts to another display of personal combat in which a large group of men, some of “noble” birth, gamble on the outcome. We meet the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) and his protégé (ward?) Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth); as well as the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir), the patron of the victor in the first combat here, Guthrie. Cunningham is a fop, but with a twist: he is expert with the blade, as we soon discover. Argyll’s man: Guthrie is apparently disgusted by Cunningham's foppishness and provokes a challenge. The ensuing contest is a display of Cunningham’s nature as much as Rob Roy’s treatment of the thieves showed his.

All the parts in this film are brilliantly played, with the major characters Rob Roy: the “noble” commoner, paired with his wife Mary (Jessica Lange); and Archie Cunningham: the fallen and debauched “aristocrat,” “paired” with a servant girl (Vicki Masson) he exploits. One is as bright as the other is dark. Both actors shine with their portrayals. Neeson’s hero is well executed, as should be expected from such a fine actor. However, Roth’s Archie is one of the truly great villains of film.

The drawing of contrasts between Rob Roy and Archie continues. Rob returns home after a stop in the local village, which shows the level of desperation of his people. He bathes in a highland loch and wakes his wife in their country home by dropping flower petals on her sleeping face and then making love. On the other hand, Archie’s den is on the estate of his Marquis. Here he is shown with his “serving wench” Betty. He is awakened by an obnoxious agent of the Marquis who informs him that tradesmen are seeking payment for Archie’s bad debts.

When talking to his young sons Rob sums up what this film is actually about when he says: “Honor is what no man can give you and none can take away. Honor is a man’s gift to himself.” Rob has a plan to help raise the prospects for his village. He proposes to make a profit from purchasing and driving cattle to market. He needs capital to begin the investment which his people will help him carry through. He will borrow the money from the Marquis with his land as collateral. One of his men is assigned to accept the money and falls prey to Archie’s larcenous need to pay his ill-made debts. This sets in motion the events which lead to the eventual personal conflict between the main characters.

Rob Roy was first in theaters in the same time frame as Braveheart. Both received critical acclaim, but the huge box office and awards were all collected by Braveheart. Both films concern Scotland and its history. Both films are about honor and integrity and their opposites. Both films are excellent entertainment, but there is a difference. Braveheart concerns the mass movements of huge numbers of people and the fate of nations. Rob Roy is more local: focused on individual lives and personal honor. Rob Roy never got the huge audience in the theater which it should have, probably in part because of the timing of its release. Perhaps, on the small screen it will eventually “catch up” and gain the accolades it richly deserves.

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