REVIEW SUMMARY: Despite a strong cast and good director, Ridley Scott stuffs his lifeless reimagining of Sherwood Forest’s most famous denizen with pretension.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Upon the death of Richard Coeur de Lion, archer Robin Longstride returns to England to hold off an impending Norman invasion and, ultimately, to become Robin Hood.
PROS: Good cast (with the exception of the title character), especially Eileen Atkins as Eleanor of Aquitaine; and Robin’s liberation of grain taken from Nottingham.
CONS: Poor pacing; middling dialogue; flabby, surprisingly aimless direction from Scott; hammy performance from Mark Strong; too many scenes reminiscent of other movies; neglect of historical events and detail; and Russell Crowe.
Near the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe, whose casting immediately signals problems) and his men stumble upon a group of English knights ambushed by Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), an English knight with French lineage. Through the dying Sir Robert Loxley Robin learns of King Richard the Lionhearted’s death. Wishing to return to England, he decides to assume Sir Loxley’s identity and return the crown to King John (Oscar Isaac). Such concealment of identity and deception runs deep throughout the movie – so deep, in fact, that the movie falls prey to its own identity crisis.
It didn’t have to be this way. Word has it that Ethan Reiff’s and Cyrus Voris’s original script, entitled Nottingham, focused on a sympathetic Sheriff in conflict with a villainous Robin Hood, both of whom vying for the affections of Maid Marian. But Scott (who, according to one report, has never been a fan of any serious screen version of Robin Hood, including the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring the incomparable Errol Flynn, and in fact prefers Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights) hired Brian Helgeland to rewrite the script, transforming the Sherwood terrorist into a bland contemporary action hero and concentrating on an origin story in the tradition of Batman Begins and Casino Royale. And had Scott and Helgeland left it at that, things might – might – have been okay; they might have given the movie relevance in the age of contemporary Tea Parties. However, in dropping the title Nottingham in favor of the more classic Robin Hood, they opened the movie to more comparisons and obvious problems than it can handle.
Start with the miscasting of Russell Crowe, whose brutish manner sits at odds with portrayals of Robin Hood as a noble thief of the people. Try as he might (and he really does not try very hard here), he cannot muster the deft charm or sly wit found in Errol Flynn’s masterful portrayal in 1935 or the suave worldliness of Sean Connery in Robin and Marian. Had he portrayed the Sheriff of Nottingham, as was originally intended, Crowe’s surly disposition would have fit. But he cannot convey the intelligence and charisma that will ultimately make him the world’s most famous highwayman, nor can he make the viewer forget Douglas Fairbanks, or Flynn, or even the brown fox in Disney’s animated version. (And there are times when he makes one yearn for Kevin Costner!)
This miscasting exacerbates the movie’s glaring historical and geographical inaccuracies. (The Adventures of Robin Hood is also grossly inaccurate, but Flynn and Basil Rathbone are so engaging that one did not care.) Granted, Robin Hood’s story is the stuff of legend, not history, but by having Robin’s father, a stone mason, draft one of the most important documents in English history, only to have King John burn it, asks more of the audience than it would be willing to take no matter how postmodern its sensibilities. Worse still, by setting the action before Robin Hood becomes Robin Hood, it sacrifices several elements of the legend. When Robin and his men arrive at Nottingham, he meets Sir Robert’s father, Sir William Loxley (Max Von Sydow, thanklessly donating all of his nobility), who convinces him to pose as Sir Robert, lest the Loxley family lost its five thousand acres of farmland. To be convincing, he must act as husband to Sir Robert’s wife Marian (Cate Blanchett). Because she is married to Sir Robert, she cannot be called “Maid” Marian.
The movie also sacrifices the best parts of the Robin Hood tale for routine action machinations. Gone is the archery contest; in its place is a muddled raid of Nottingham by Sir Godfrey and his troops and a battle on the beaches of the White Cliffs of Dover (where there are no beaches), played like a mélange of a Medieval parody of Saving Private Ryan and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gone are masterfully choreographed swordfights; in their place are brutish tussles that, for all of their numerous soldiers, lack the epic scale Scott wants desperately to instill. Gone is King John’s single-minded, destructive thirst for vengeance against Robin Hood; in its place is a confusing whirlwind of courtly intrigue that slows what should be a sweeping adventure to a crawl through the moors.
It didn’t have to be this way, and occasionally it isn’t. Though Mark Strong as Sir Godfrey threatens to chew every tree in Sherwood Forest to a mushy pulp (he is truly a bit of typecasting waiting to happen), and though Oscar Isaac too often hams up his portrayal of King John, the rest of the supporting cast is quite good. Eileen Atkins is particularly memorable as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and has one of the best scenes in the movie, reprimanding a naked King John in front of his lover Isabella of Angoulême (the lovely Léa Seydoux). Cate Blanchett (also lovely) plays Marian as resourceful and possessing a tough-mindedness anachronistic for the period but suitable for the purposes of the modern action movie, though having her fight alongside English soldiers defending the land against Norman invasion asks too much. And individual moments ring true, as when Robin and his men hijack a wagon laden with grain taken from Nottingham by King John’s tax collectors. Fun, but not enough.
I hope that this fallow telling of Robin Hood will cause others to seek out far superior interpretations, or, for those who would like to read one of the canonical texts, even a copy of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. My guess, however, is that Russell Crowe’s glowering mug will for this generation become the face of the character, at least for the time being, and will make Universal Pictures quite rich. And we are the poorer for it.