Here is a film that I didn’t go out of my way to see. I received it as part of a Liam Neeson box set (along with Taken, The A-Team and Kingdom of Heaven. I watched the other three films not long after buying the set. This one however, has taken me far longer to get round to. Historical drama from that period isn’t top of my list.
And it turns out I was right in not rushing to see it. Sort of.
The plot sees Rob (Neeson) borrow £1000 from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) to help feed his clan. The money is stolen by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). Rob then goes on the run when he refuses to slander the name of one of Montrose’s rivals in lieu of paying the debt. Rob has his own code to live by, a man of principle. There would be no way that he would agree to do as the Marquess asks. So, he runs.
For the rest of it, where to begin? First, the Scottish accents tend to slip quite a bit. Jessica Lange’s is all over the place. Liam’s is too, starting quite Scottish and then just going with his own accent by the film’s end. Eric Stoltz… well, the less said the better I think. To balance things out are the just the right side of OTT English accents of John Hurt and Tim Roth, and the standard Scots accent of the always reliable Brian Cox (the actor, not the scientist).
It’s also very, very slow to get going. Yes, I appreciate that the audience needs to be guided into this world and to understand each of the character’s motivations and so on. But… you can do that in a much more concise manner and still get the point across. That’s perhaps the biggest issue with Rob Roy, that it dawdles and stretches things out rather than getting to the point. Show me who these people are, and then let the drama and action beats play out. I don’t need a thirty minute introduction to all the key players, of whom only four or five really matter.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. John Hurt and Tim Roth are both on fine form. I would have gladly paid to see them both play these characters in their own movie. That stuff is gold. Sadly their shared scenes are limited over the two hour plus running time, so I would make the most of them while you can. If you happened to take one or both actors out of this, I would have rated it much lower. That’s not to criticise the rest of the cast. Everyone puts in a fine performance. It’s just that Hurt and Roth elevate the material. It’s no surprise that Roth received an Oscars nomination for his performance.
The climactic sword fight is worth seeing. It’s dramatic and tense without lapsing into Michael Bay-style fast cuts or getting so close to the action you can’t see what’s happening. The outcome is perhaps not in question, but it does very nicely establish that there is a possibility that one man can best the other.
It also looks rather nice. The mountainous regions and on-location filming give it an epic feel. Sadly, this is then spoilt by the lack of actors involved in most of the scenes. An epic chase between Rob’s clan and the redcoats looking for them has at best 20 people in the scene. A few tweaks, James Cameron style, and it could have looked all the more impressive.
Okay, so it’s slow to get started, but eventually it builds into an enjoyable revenge tale. If you take out or condense down a few earlier scenes and a slight lull towards the middle of the film, Rob Roy would be a definite recommendation. As it is, it’s merely okay rather than great. I will likely say the same thing about Braveheart when I get round to it. It was released in the same year as Rob Roy and by all accounts takes a more liberal approach to history. One day, we shall see!