Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rob Roy

When watching Rob Roy (1995), one can't help but be reminded of another movie that came out in 1995 about a rogue Scottish highlander, the passion he held for the woman he loved, and his rebellion against the ruling English. While Rob Roy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Tim Roth), Braveheart took home Best Picture, Best Director and a host of other nominations. I'm not going to try to make a comparison about which film is better, but I will argue that despite the similar setups, the results are entirely different.

Robert Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson) is a clan leader in 18th century Scotland who borrows money from the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) to buy cattle and better provide for his people. However, another nobleman, Archibald Cunningham (Roth), to advance his own ambition, murders MacDonald (Eric Stoltz), a clansman of MacGregor, and steals the money. Unable to repay the loan, MacGregor is offered the chance to erase the debt if he falsely testifies the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir), a political rival of Montrose, is a Jacobite, denouncing him a traitor to the English crown. MacGregor refuses and becomes an outlaw. Cunningham leads the effort to capture MacGregor, and in the process, he burns MacGregor's home and rapes his wife Mary (Jessica Lange). Mary keeps the atrocity secret from her husband, knowing he would put himself in danger to avenge her.

If Braveheart can be described in one word ("FREEDOM!"), so too can Rob Roy: honor. William Wallace is a man who will lead his countrymen in a battle against tyranny in a clash of armies. Rob Roy is a man caught up in the political and personal backstabbing of British aristocracy who will become a fugitive rather than speak falsely against someone else.

Rob Roy is set in the waning years of Highlander life, a few years before the Highlanders participated in the Jacobite Rising of 1715, the failed rebellion to restore the exiled Stuart line to the British throne. Another uprising was attempted in 1745, but it too failed. After two revolts, the British government took steps to ensure a third would not follow, passing the Heritable Jurisdictions Acts of 1746, which removed Scottish lords from heritable jurisdictions, and the Act of Proscription that same year, banning traditional Highland dress. We also learn in the movie, many Highlanders are also being lured away to America to escape poverty. Essentially, the life we see Rob Roy and his people lead is a life that will soon be wiped out, confined to history.

As portrayed by Neeson, Rob Roy is a man of principal doing his best to resist the influence of the corrupting outside world, sticking to his values as society casts those values aside. The Highlanders here are rugged, honest working folks, content to in their simple ways. The aristocracy is indulgent, petty, and concerned only with money, and unfortunately, its members - the conniving Montrose and the ruthless Cunningham - have the power.

The movie does not have nearly as much action as Braveheart. There are daring escapes, tense chases, and duels over honor, but you won't see anything approaching the Battle of Stirling. Still, Rob Roy feels like an epic. The cinematography is gorgeous and has magnificent, sweeping shots of the Scottish countryside. The performances are solid, although Roth definitely is the standout, projecting a vicious cunning carefully hidden beneath a mask of dainty foppishness.


  1. I have not seen "Rob Roy," but a friend of mine used to insist it has the best movie swordfight of all time. Agree?

    1. That's hard to say, and I don't think I'm qualified to answer. I've similarly seen the swordfight in "Rob Roy" hyped as the best of all time, and it's certainly impressive. You can really detect the strategy and personalities of the two combatants and fell what's at stake; they're not just mindlessly hacking at each other in an overly choreographed dance. It feels like they're really fighting, getting tired, and waiting for the other man to make a mistake.