I went to see Robin Hood last weekend.
Truth be told I was a bit sceptical about whether I’d enjoy it or not. Ridley Scott is a film maker whose work I have a lot of admiration for – particularly his earlier stuff – but the sloppiness of Kingdom Of Heaven had really undermined my view of his judgment, even Gladiator (beautifully shot though it is) has its problems and here he was taking on another period piece. To make matters worse the film has been marketed as the “true” story behind the legend, a ridiculous claim that no one – other than the lead actor – believes and that is fundamentally unprovable. These two things coupled with a proliferation of stories of lead actor, Russell Crowe’s, demands for script changes and temper tantrums did not bode well.
I was pleasantly surprised.
The story focuses in on Robin Longstride, an archer in Richard The Lionheart’s crusade army, and a man weary of war. Laying siege to a castle in France, on their way back to England, Robin draws attention to himself by getting into a fight with a big bruiser called Little John, thrown into the stocks for being honest Robin misses the final battle in which Richard is killed. Robin flees with his men, desperately trying to get to the coast before the rest of the army and the news of the king’s death. Legend begins to weave into story as Robert Loxley of Nottingham is dispatched with the King’s crown for England even as a French double agent is sent to kill Richard – they don’t know he’s dead yet – and create civil war in England by turning the northern barons on the new, vain, king John. When Robert is killed in a forest ambush in France, it is Robin who sees off the bandits, Robin who comforts the dying man and Robin who agrees to take Loxley’s sword home to his father. Robin sets off for home posing as Loxley in order to gain passage and returning the crown. From there he heads to Nottingham and his inevitable destiny…
The story was far more coherent than Kingdom of Heaven (not a great stretch) but also, dare I say it, Gladiator. Though the film has strong thematic links to both those films as it focuses a lot on father figures and their role in shaping sons. It’s beautifully shot, as you’d expect, but there’s far more humour in the piece than I was expecting, including a deliciously pantomime King John played by Oscar Isaac and a wonderfully redundant Sheriff of Nottingham.
Russell Crowe does not deliver – in my opinion – the Gladiator-In-Tights performance that it was suggested he might but actually moves the character a fair way from Maximus. Crowe’s Robin is far rougher around the edges, more given to humour, and, although he does share Maximus’s unwillingness to compromise, more layered as a character. Crowe got a lot of stick for his accent on this one but while it is true the accent’s effectiveness is questionable he is clearly trying to do a midlands accent – far more than most actors who tackle the part have done, and a challenge for an Aussie more than capable of doing a straight English accent no one would have questioned (see Master & Commander). Personally, I think he did a good job.
The writing was something that stuck a bit. As I say, the story design was far better than I had been expecting and so, in a macro sense, the film was very good, held up by well constructed editing as you’d hope from a director of this calibre. However, the dialogue was bordering on Lucas like cheese in places and one wondered how Crowe and others could deliver it with a straight face. For me lines like “An Englishman’s home is his castle…” however ironically delivered just took me out of the film. The coincidence quota of the film was also very high but I am forced to admit the rather clever attempt to recompose a hypothetical history from the legend of Robin Hood meant this was always going to happen.
The decision to market the film as “True” is a contemptible piece of over simplification of which advertising bods (myself included) frequently – and with the best of intentions – fall foul. However, the film is definitely trying to do something a bit different with the legend and to give the sense that this could have actually happened and led to the legend. In order to do this you get the playful weaving of previous interpretations of the legend with Crowe’s Robin impersonating Robert Loxley being amongst the most obvious and most enjoyable. I was also fond of the way the film pushed the relationship between Loxley’s father (played by the wonderfully gaunt Max von Sydow) and Robin one way, implying heavily one kind of relationship, before going a different route entirely. It was a willingness to play with convention that endeared the film to me.
Cate Blanchett’s Marion was another example. No shrieking, virginal, maid hanging on Robin’s every word from Blanchett, like the BBC revival of Robin this was to be a Marion for the modern age with her already married to Robert Loxley and running his estate in his absence. She shoes horses, she shoots bows, she can swing a sword and she gives the church what for. It’s a good strong female character. Except – and the writing falls down a bit here – there are some worrying moments, for example, whilst sharing a room and pretending to be her husband she warns Robin not to try to touch her, then she disrobes whilst back lit by a candle. The character is clearly intelligent, clearly aware Robin is there and clearly uncomfortable and so this action defies common sense. Later, having sent Robin off to do battle Cate appears at said battle in armour, accompanied by the orphaned hooligans of Richard’s dead crusaders, and this is all to the good. Yet she proceeds – so it seems – to seek Robin’s permission (which he grants admittedly). In a sense the character of Marion in the film encapsulates the writing as a whole: patchy but with moments of brilliance.
Overall this is a reasonably well written, coherent, enjoyable, boy’s own adventure that should entertain but don’t expect something as elusive as truth.