THE CONTENDER: Rob Roy (1995)
Number of Nominations: 1 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Tim Roth)
Number of Wins: Nane
Every so often, Hollywood studio executives will drink from the same batch of Kool-Aid and, as a result, we’ll get two or more competing projects with weirdly similar themes. Sometimes these movies are alike in only the broadest strokes, as happens whenever we get a glut of body-switch comedies all at once. Other times, they’re bizarrely specific. I’m still not sure why we got two Truman Capote biopics in 2005-06.
Back in 1995, we had the Battle of the Scottish Epics with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart debuting about a month after Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson as the Highland Rogue. It was a short-lived skirmish. Braveheart quickly eclipsed Rob Roy in popularity, making over six times as much at the domestic box office and eventually winning five Oscars, including Best Picture. By the time the nominations were announced, pretty much everybody had forgotten all about Rob Roy…except for Tim Roth’s out-sized performance as the loathsome Archibald Cunningham.
In most respects, comparisons between Rob Roy and Braveheart are unfair from the start. Yes, both films take place in Scotland, are (very) loosely based on historical figures, star long-haired men wearing kilts and feature the great character actor Brian Cox in supporting roles. But apart from these surface similarities, the two films are quite different. Braveheart is an epic war film that champions freedom and independence, while Rob Roy is a smaller-scale adventure focusing on personal relationships and ideas like honor and self-worth. Braveheart has massive battle scenes. Rob Roy has duels between individuals. They don’t even take place in the same century. Almost 500 years separates the two stories.
Rob Roy is an old-fashioned movie, romantic in the classical sense of Blake and Shelley. Neeson plays Robert Roy MacGregor, a Highland chief devoted to his Clan, his children, and his beloved wife, Mary (Jessica Lange). Hoping to provide a better life for his people, MacGregor borrows a thousand pounds from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) with the aims of using it to trade cattle. But Montrose’s devious factor Killearn (Cox) sees an opportunity and recruits the exiled, penniless aristocrat Cunningham to kill MacGregor’s go-between (Eric Stoltz) and make off with the money.
Montrose offers to forgive the debt if Rob will bear false witness that Montrose’s rival for the Queen’s support is a Jacobite. Rob refuses, not out of any great love for the Duke but simply because lying would violate his own code of honor. And so, Rob Roy is branded an outlaw and Cunningham sets out to flush him out of hiding by seizing his land, burning his house, killing his livestock and, last but not least, raping his wife. One small problem with that plan: Mary knows full well what will happen if Rob sets out in a blind rage, so she doesn’t tell him about the rape. So with cooler heads prevailing, Rob and Mary focus on finding out what happened to the thousand pounds.
As I mentioned, this is an old-fashioned movie in both story and style. It isn’t too difficult to imagine versions of this same tale coming out in the 1930s, 40s or 50s. Indeed, Walt Disney produced one back in 1953, presumably with considerably less rape. The sexual assault is handled about as tastefully here as one could hope, thanks in large part to Lange’s powerful performance. She’s a strong character and an ideal match for Neeson. They have palpable chemistry together and you never once doubt their commitment to one another. If there is perhaps a bit too much emphasis put on Neeson’s reaction to the assault rather than Lange’s, at least it’s her decision to make. And when Neeson does discover the truth (seemingly long after everyone else in Scotland has), he’s hurt that she didn’t tell him right away but concedes that it would have been much worse if she had.
All of which brings us back to Tim Roth. In interviews, Roth has said that he fully expected to be fired once studio execs got a look at his over-the-top performance and credits director Michael Caton-Jones for encouraging him to go for broke. On the outside, Cunningham is a lisping fop. But beneath the filigreed lace and curly wig lie the steely eyes of a true sociopath. Roth allows us to see that anything likable or charming about this man is a total sham, an act required by the conventions of the society he aspires to. Even Cunningham’s patron, Montrose, holds him in contempt and Killearn, who at first views him as an easily manipulated partner, grows steadily more horrified by his behavior. It is, in other words, the quintessential villainous Basil Rathbone role given a grim and gritty 90s upgrade, right down to the swordplay. Roth gets two great showcase scenes and the climactic fight against Neeson is right up there with the best sword fights ever filmed.
Roth racked up a number of Supporting Actor nominations for Rob Roy and even ended up winning a BAFTA Award. But he was always considered a longshot for the Oscar (the award ended up going to Kevin Spacey for The Usual Suspects). The Academy is rarely shy about rewarding actors for going big and broad. Just look at Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda or Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. But they are extremely skittish about awarding a performance in a movie with no other nominations. They seem to view such things as anomalies, like the actor made a happy mistake in an otherwise dire film. I don’t think that’s quite fair here. Roth’s performance isn’t at odds with the rest of the movie. In fact, it suits the tone quite well. If Roth’s performance deserved to be singled out, then so did Lange’s.
Even more surprising than his nomination for Rob Roy is the fact that it remains Tim Roth’s only Academy Award nomination to date. Prior to Rob Roy, Roth was known to hardcore film buffs as a risk-taking chameleon, having appeared in such films as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, and, of course, Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But in the years since, he hasn’t really found a breakthrough part in a major Oscar contender. He has certainly continued to do excellent work but often on television, in smaller films that fly a bit beneath the radar, like Chronic, or as part of a larger ensemble, as in Selma and The Hateful Eight.
For his part, Roth has always seemed somewhat ambivalent about awards and accolades. I suspect he was somewhat uncomfortable with being the one thing about Rob Roy to be singled out for award consideration. Tim Roth is an actor’s actor, quietly doing the work and very happy to contribute his unique gifts to a story that’s larger than any one person. That’s why his nomination for Rob Roy is such an outlier in his career. It’s a scene-stealing performance from an actor with no prior criminal record.
Rob Roy is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM.