“Rob Roy,” set against the swash-buckling backgroung of clans battling nobles in 18th-century Scotland, is really a love story between a man and his wife, according to Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal, This Boy’s Life). Believe that if you want. Jessica Lange brings uncommon emotional intensity to the role of Mary, Mrs. to the heroic Robert Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson) and mother of his two sons. Lange and Neeson put genuine erotic heat into their love scenes, and Mary back-talks Rob with 20th-century feminist fire when he’s being a jerk. But it’s only when he gets down to the business of battle that Rob and the film really smolder.
Top dog among the do-badders is Tim Roth as Cunningham, a perfumed aristocrat in the evil service of the Marquis of Montrose (a smarmy John Hurt). Screenwriter Alan Sharp, another Scot, lays in a lot of history, which is, in a word, dreary. Roth is not. Flamboyant doesn’t begin to describe his wickedly entertaining performance. Cunningham comes on as a fop — the way Brando’s Mr. Christian did in Mutiny on the Bounty — but there’s a precision killer and cocksman under the powder and wigs. Cunningham must have the highest sperm count in the Highlands. He beds the Marquis’ maid Betty (Vicki Masson), she’s pregnant. He rapes Mary, and despite her attempt to wash out his malevolent seed in the loch, she’s pregnant. That leads to a duel to the death.
Doesn’t it always? That’s the trouble with Rob Roy: You always know where it’s going even as it meanders for two and a half hours getting there. Compensation comes in gorgeous cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub that lets you drink in the mist in the gloaming and the heather on the hill. But Rob Roy isn’t Brigadoon. Rob Roy‘s story stands or falls with the appeal of its protagonist. Though you might question casting an Irishman as a Scot, Neeson makes a stalwart, sexy hero — even in a kilt. Unfortunately, the script saddles him with virtuous speeches (“I don’t want to see a child hungry or old folks cold”) that make him sound like he’s running for office or sainthood. Only when Roth the rogue brings out the bad boy in Neeson the Highlander does Rob Roy cut it as a rousing adventure.