Rob Roy
directed by Michael Caton-Jones
(United Artists, 1995)

Feeling homesick for the good old days? Well, Michael Caton-Jones has the antidote you need.

Jones is the director of the 1995 epic Rob Roy, one of the few films in recent years to give history both the lavish treatment and the alliteration it deserves; and the antidote is two and a third hours of the most grueling -- and fascinating -- glimpses you may ever get into the inner workings of the 18th century.

Eighteenth-century Scotland, that is, the Highland home of Rob Roy MacGregor and what's left of his clan following a century of emigration to the "New World." It's a land of stunning natural beauty and unnatural cruelty, a place where honor is more important than food, and more plentiful.

Through this land strides Rob Roy (Liam Neeson), a Scottish chieftain with the unusual ambition of feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor. To do so, he devises a plan to borrow a thousand pounds from the local lord, the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt), and make a killing in the cattle market, though not until the steers are delivered, of course.

His plan goes haywire, however, when his trusted aide MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) runs afoul of Montrose's fop-in-residence, Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), a despicably dangerous swordsman who has yet to be foiled. Still, all would be well if MacGregor would just do the right thing -- and lie about the Duke of Argyle (Andrew Keir). But therein lies the rub for Rob.

Rob Roy MacGregor is a man of his word. His is honest to a fault. His word is his oath, and his oath, like MacGregor, has never been broken. That doesn't sit well with the powers that be, of course -- particularly Montrose, who is eager to seize MacGregor's property, and Cunningham, who is eager to seize MacGregor's wife (Jessica Lange). So before long, all the Highlands are ablaze.

But Rob Roy is not, for the most part, a film of epic sweep. Rather, it's concerned with honor and the individual, and what happens when honor clashes with more tangible values, such as that placed, or not placed, on human life.

Add to that strong theme a powerful soundtrack that draws heavily on traditional Highlands music, location cinematography worthy of the best National Geographic specials and the most articulate screen dialogue Hollywood has offered us in some time, and you have a winning combination, despite the overall mood of despair that haunts the film.

At the same time, the acting is so good on all parts that it's hard not to give in to your willing suspension of disbelief, even while you run to the kitchen to pull your popcorn out of the microwave.

Neeson is especially good as MacGregor, playing him as a man of honor but not of stone. Lange is just as good as his more practical but just as honorable wife. Roth outdoes them both as Cunningham, who's made it his business to break commandments that haven't even been written yet.

The accents might make some speeches difficult to follow; the language may get a bit too bawdy; and anyone who can watch Cunningham's ravishing of Mary MacGregor without flinching should lose their post position in the human race.

But all in all, Rob Roy is a rare treat: It's painful but perceptive, sharp-edged but sweet; violent, but with very good reason -- a film that can make you feel good about people, but bad about those good old days.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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