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Archie Best Character In ‘Rob Roy’

Kenneth Turan Los Angeles Times

“Rob Roy” Locations: Lyons, East Sprague and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, John Hurt, Eric Stoltz and Brian Cox Running time: 139 minutes Rated: R

“Rob Roy” is one of those familiar names that everyone’s heard but no one can quite place. The nickname (roy means red in Gaelic) of an 18th century Scottish Robin Hood named Robert MacGregor whose story was embroidered by novelist Sir Walter Scott, it makes for a dashing and romantic film title as well.

But if you wanted to name this particular movie for its most interesting, charismatic and fully realized character, you’d have to call it “Archie.”

This is not to take away more than is necessary from non-redhead Liam Neeson, who as the tallest guy in the picture is appropriately commanding as Rob, and Celtic as well. The kiltwearing leader of his fierce clan, Rob is never flustered and in fact rarely so much as blinks. Madly in love with his fiery wife, Mary (Jessica Lange), Rob has an unbending sense of honor that leads him into the messy conflicts with authority that are the film’s plot pivots.

But although Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones takes pains to show what an active sex life Rob and Mary have (must be those darn kilts), their bucolic interludes are blandly unconvincing and they push “Rob Roy” in a stately, decorous direction that is no more than moderately satisfying.

When Archie Cunningham is on screen, watch out. As played by the riveting Tim Roth, featured in “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” Archie is an arresting combination of dandy and brute, a self-described “bastard abroad seeking the favor of great men.”

First introduced as a mincing, effete fop with a taste for elaborate clothes and willing servant girls, Archie is gradually revealed as an icy sociopath filled with a rage at his lack of position in the social order. The more frightening he becomes, the more we see into his inner life, the harder it is not to wish that this film were more about him and less about Mr. and Mrs. Roy. Perhaps director Caton-Jones, whose most successful films (“Scandal,” “This Boy’s Life”) have had a dark edge, secretly wished this as well.

In fact, when Roth’s character is on screen, everyone’s acting goes up a notch. Neeson’s scenes with him, including a classic sword fight, are the star’s best, and even John Hurt, who has a tendency to coast through films, gets himself involved as the vicious Marquis of Montrose, Cunningham’s patron and Rob Roy’s most powerful enemy.

When the film begins, Rob is in the service of the Marquis, hunting down those who would steal the great man’s cattle. But once he and best friend Alan McDonald (a surprisingly well-cast Eric Stoltz) step outside their station and borrow money from the Marquis to acquire some cattle of their own, assorted evil-doers take notice and soon Rob is in terrible trouble.

Screenwriter Alan Sharp, also a Scot with considerable experience in Hollywood (having written everything from Robert Aldrich’s “Ulzana’s Raid” to Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves”), has ignored the Walter Scott novel and based his story loosely on the real Rob’s history. Aside from throwing in too many twists and assuming a familiarity with rivalry for the British throne that most Americans do not have, his script underlines the difficulties that can unseat modern historical dramas.

One problem is that much of what marks this film as of the 1990s, things like raunchy sex jokes and an unhealthy amount of violence, are distancing rather than inviting. At the opposite end of the spectrum, except for Cunningham’s character, attempts to bring a period verisimilitude to the dialogue have the same effect by making the actors themselves uncomfortable.

Jessica Lange brings her usual presence and skill to the role of the doughy Mary, but having to handle dialogue like “You know I love the bones of you, Robert MacGregor” would daunt almost anyone. As for Neeson, the script so overloads his character with homiletic wisdom like “Honor is what no man can give you and none can take away. … Honor is a man’s gift to himself” that he almost seems to be speaking in italics.

Working with cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, director Caton-Jones has given “Rob Roy” a beautiful wide-screen look, filled with gorgeous vistas. But this film is like a color Xerox copy of the real thing: hard to tell from an original until you look closely at the details.

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