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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1995


Mel Gibson
Mel Gibson;
Catherine McCormack;
Brendan Gleeson;
David O'Hara;
Angus McFadyen;
Sophie Marceau;
Patrick McGoohan
Under 17 restricted
Picture; Director; Cinematography; Effects; Makeup

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There's all too little opportunity in modern life for righteous anger—particularly of the sort that affords the aggrieved party license to take off an enemy's arm with a broadsword. Not so in the 13th century, when men were men, and certainly not during the life of William Wallace, the fierce Scottish lord whose rebellion against the English is the subject of Mel Gibson's hunk-driven historical epic, "Braveheart."

According to Gibson—who functions as producer-director-star for this nearly three-hour movie—and screenwriter Randall Wallace, the great Scot is a hero in the Robin Hood mode. A common farmer who wants simply to be left alone to work his land, Wallace has seen Edward I slaughter his country's nobles, tax its clansmen and claim the right to sleep with the brides of all Scotsmen on their first night of marriage. Even so, Wallace does not initially join some of the others in their uprising against the king, preferring to remain on the sidelines.

Soon, however, the British attack his own family—including his childhood beloved (Catherine McCormack)—and though Wallace may be slow to boil, he makes up for it by hurling himself into battle with murderous abandon. In the process, Wallace becomes one of the nation's founding fathers—like Rob Roy—followed by a motley pickup army that sees him as a sort of living myth. Actually, "Braveheart" might not have seemed quite so ordinary—or so monstrously long—just three months ago, before the release of "Rob Roy"; now it's merely the second-best film about Scotland around. Both films are ostensibly historical romances; "Braveheart," though, emphasizes the history over the romance. Gibson seems to have consciously chosen a character whose impulse toward action is the opposite of another of his recent roles—Hamlet.

Powerfully built with a wild mane of chestnut hair flying behind him, Wallace is a simple, uncomplicated man. Similarly, the movie doesn't have any lofty ambitions. It is entertaining, especially when the director sets his armies in motion against each other. These colorful, lavishly violent battles are easily the movie's most impressive scenes. In terms of sheer spectacle, they're expertly orchestrated in a manner that, though not particularly original, still manages to be both stirring and beautiful.

Unfortunately, the energy from these high points doesn't spill over into the rest of the movie. After Wallace's initial attempt to boot the Brits out of Scotland fails, the movie can't quite get up to speed again. All that's left, really, is for Wallace to repeat himself by, again, winning the war on the battlefield only to lose it in the negotiations that follow.

Gibson may be ambitious as a director and producer here, but not as an actor. Though the character is immense, Gibson keeps him human with an appealingly boyish performance. He's obviously having a whale of a time with a character who not only speaks French, Latin and Italian and romances an alluring French princess-turned-spy (Sophie Marceau), but also, periodically, wades thigh-deep into human gore.

Wallace's defining characteristic is his intelligence; instead of simply overwhelming his foes, he outfoxes them, turning their superior size and inflexibility against them. But for a story whose hero is supposedly such a brain, "Braveheart" doesn't seem to have much on its mind. The movie itself is very old-Hollywood, in its casual mixing of historical and melodramatic elements. The costumes are the latest in medieval grunge, the cinematography is expansive and transporting, and the supporting cast outclasses the star (Patrick McGoohan as Edward and Marceau as the French Princess Isabelle are especially fun). In making "Braveheart," Gibson has proved that he is a competent director, capable of handling ambitious projects with large casts and big production costs. He has created a completely adequate modern facsimile of the classic romantic epic.

Braveheart is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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