Robin Hood Review
In 1199, Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) is fatally wounded while making his way back to England through France, following the Third Crusade. It falls to his aide Sir Robert Loxley to return the crown to England, but he is ambushed and killed by Godfrey (Mark Strong), trusted friend to Richard’s brother Prince John (Oscar Isaac), heir to the throne. Also making their way home are soldiers Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) and friends, who wrestle the crown back from Godfrey and assume the identity of Loxley and his entourage in order to reach England. But under Godfrey’s influence John turns his own countrymen against the king, as part of a French plan to conquer England, and Robin finds himself drawn in to a rebellion.
Ridley Scott’s take on history’s greatest outlaw has a well documented history of production troubles. Originally called ‘Nottingham’, the script started out as a version of the story told from the perspective of the Sheriff of Nottingham, with Robin shown in a less than heroic light. From there it went through several mutations, with Crowe mind-bogglingly down to play both Robin and the Sheriff at one point. Eventually it appears no-one could decide what to do with the story, so Scott has turned it in to a sort of sequel to his 2005 Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven; a ‘Kingdom of Nottingham’, if you will. Not only that, it serves as a prequel to the classic tale, establishing how the characters came together and setting the story up for the legend that follows.
Hamstrung by the reports of these troubles, coupled with a lacklustre marketing campaign that failed to get anyone excited, it appeared a colossal failure was on the cards. Then a week before release, the British broadsheets unexpectedly gave it positive reviews. Had Scott heroically snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and forged an exciting new version of the people’s outlaw? Well, in the words of that other great English historical legend, Lord Blackadder: ‘Yes… and no’. Yes, Scott has created a thoughtful new take on who Robin Hood could have been, if he ever existed (which is debatable of course). But no, it’s not exciting.
The backbone of the story is good. The idea that Robin fought in King Richard’s army is not new – we saw that in the 1991 Costner version. But Richard’s Crusade here is shown to be the folly of an egotistical king, with Robin paying for his outspoken criticism of a foreign war. The notion that Robin’s struggle against the unjust taxation of the poor was part of a wider movement of dissent that culminated in the Magna Carta of 1215 is also a nice touch. Some of the history has been massaged to make the story more cinematic, but this portrayal of the legend has the best historical grounding seen yet. The production looks superb: the shots of London and the English countryside feel authentic and are quite beautiful in their own way.
The characters here are also dirtier and grittier than in previous incarnations. For a king who spent less than six months of his ten year reign in England, Richard has had pretty good portrayals in the past. Here he is seen as charismatic and charming, but also reckless and arrogant. King John is petulant and naive as always, but brave on occasions too. The Lady Marian is far more Charlie Dimmock than fair princess. Needless to say, the ‘merry’ men are all grizzled and dour (bar the occasional night of frolics with Nottingham’s ladies).
But this is where the wheels start to come off this new Robin Hood. Any film about the infamous outlaw will have expectations placed on it. It must have Robin, Marian, King Richard, Prince John, the merry men, the Sheriff, Sherwood Forest, and all the rest. You can play around with the ingredients, but above all else, Robin Hood is a popular legend because it is FUN. Kingdom of Nottingham has moments of action and intrigue, but overpowering them is a feeling of flatness and unevenness of tone. The sub-plot about Robin’s father is ultimately pointless, as is the barely-explained presence of seemingly feral teenagers running around in Sherwood with funny masks on. Russell Crowe, so magnetic in Scott’s Gladiator, is terminally dull as Robin. (It doesn’t help that, as widely reported, his accent is what might be termed ‘variable’.) The ‘merry’ men barely get a look in, while Matthew Macfadyen’s wet fish of a Sheriff is relegated to little more than an extra.
Moments of levity in general are extremely rare, and feel forced, as though they don’t belong in such a serious film. Mark Addy’s Friar Tuck does the best he can to lighten the mood, but he’s fighting a losing battle. Unintended humour creeps in, though; it’s a brave film these days that tries to use the line “None shall pass!” without trying to be funny. The climactic battle’s D-Day style landings recall Saving Private Ryan so much I half-expected the invading Norman knights to be mown down by German machine guns.
My other half said afterwards that she agreed with Mark Kermode: say what you like about the Costner version, with its annoying Californian accents, terrible geography and pantomimic villains - at least it was fun. I’m not sure I would go that far, but there’s little doubt which will be the more fondly remembered.