Rapid Review – Robin Hood
“Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions.”
The tale of Robin Hood is practically as old as England itself. Much like the Arthurian legends, the myth of Robin Hood stands as a lesson in morality. It is a story about power, and what happens when someone has too much of it. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and no medieval dynasty was more representative of this quip than the Plantagenets.
Most of the myths set Robin Hood in the time of Richard “the Lionheart”s reign. Richard wasn’t a very good king . He wasn’t even an active presence in England for much of his reign, preferring instead to fight “heretics” in the Holy Land during the Crusades, leaving his people to the mercy of his mother, the ruthless and magnetic Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his smarmy brother John (he of the notorious document of the “people”, the Magna Carta). This information is usually glossed over or romanticized in the world of Robin Hood, where Richard is often seen as the maligned hero and John as the corrupt dictator, taxing the people into poverty and despair (on this point, he was guilty as charged).
Director Ridley Scott has claimed that this version of Robin Hood is an “origin tale” of how our hero rises to legendary status. Still, the setting and players haven’t changed much from the bardic tradition. The old stereotypes are still strongly in place, even if the Scott and the screenplay by Brian Helgeland do constantly waggle a finger in the viewer’s face with the historical background he so cherishes. There’s our burly, broad-chested hero (Russell Crowe), a little longer in the tooth than might be expected, but then again, he’s been off crusading for the salvation of our Christian souls in the Third Crusade. We have a more world-weary, widowed Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett), the wife of a knight whom Robin encounters in battle. Then there is the usual band of merry men (led notably by LOST baddie Kevin Durand as Little John), and although there isn’t much to be merry about, they still manage to find quite a bit of screen time to revel and wench appropriately. As for the villainous contingent, we have the aforementioned Prince/King John (Oscar Isaac), as well as a various assortment of henchman, led by Mark Strong as Godfrey and a sadly under-utilized Matthew Macfadyen as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Scott lives for broad, sweeping cinematography, usually in tandem with tight, poetic shots of perfectly crafted sets and quaint detailing. His cinematic vision of medieval England is appropriately muddy and dismal, yet it still contains elements of the almost supernatural, at times the camera and direction appear to lord over the action like a wise and embittered hawk, as if to say, “Look Ye Mortals at What Our Greed Hath Wrought”. The film’s brilliant costuming, set decoration and art direction are all-encompassing. Scott is a creator of epic worlds, and Robin Hood sucks the viewer in unconditionally.
Still, Scott can be preachy at times, like a grizzled and determined professor. He wants his characters (most notably MaxVon Sydow and William Hurt in perfunctory supporting roles) to spout frothy exposition and historical references at the audience as if to justify this “re-telling” of Robin Hood’s motivation as concrete and factual. Instead of the insular, safe setting of Sherwood Forest common to most Robin Hood films, Scott would have us believe that Robin Longstride was not only present, but an active participant in the medieval battle for domination of Europe. Confusingly, the movie insists on draping the action in a veil of “based on a true story” (it isn’t), yet still wants his cast to present the bardic, stereotypical roles that comprise the legend. You can’t have it both ways.
Robin Hood’s strengths are many. It has fine performances by Cate Blanchett as Marian (slightly steely and a little too feminist for Scott’s historical vision, but still impressively endearing nonetheless) and Mark Strong as the duplicitous Godfrey, underling to Prince/King John. Russell Crowe is appropriately gruff and intimidating in the lead, although that “spark” of life and mischief present in his performance in Gladiator is missing here. It is nice to see a “grown up” romance between Crowe’s Robin and Blanchett’s Marian. They behave appropriately as two battle-weary adults in tough times must, yet still manage to exchange the standard longing looks of romance to come.
Where Robin Hood flounders is when the audience is asked to see Longstride as the future “Robin of the Hood” of legend. We are to believe that this is the man who will eventually rob from the rich to liberate the poor. Apparently, we have to think globally before we can act locally.
The film succeeds as a brilliant and intriguing demonstration of medieval siege and calvary warfare, at the very least. The film’s two most stunning scenes take place at the very beginning, as Richard’s troops seize a French castle, and at the requisite final scuffle against the troops of Phillip II. Through this marvelous eye candy one quibble rears its ugly head: We are expected to believe that Cate Blanchett’s Marian (who must be about 90 pounds wet) can wear chainmail and brandish a broadsword.
Much like the murky mists of Sherwood Forest itself, it might be easy for the average viewer to get lost in Scott’s dialogue and history-heavy tale. In the end, Robin Hood is visually stunning, but emotionally, it could have used a little levity and a few moments of sun breaking through those typically English clouds.
Overall Grade: B –