By Andy Frisk
May 25, 2010 - 18:18
“What we do in life echoes in eternity…” and what Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, and story/screenplay writer David Franzoni accomplished with their epic collaboration, Gladiator (2000), will definitely echo through the halls of film making eternity. What Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, and story/screenplay writer Brian Helgeland accomplished with their collaboration, Robin Hood (2010), most likely will not. It will though echo through the ages as a sort of coda to the grand movement that was Gladiator and the striving, but underwhelming, movement that was Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Ridley Scott has given us a trio of truly engaging and (to varying degrees) powerful historical tales. While Robin Hood may be the runt of the litter of these films, it is still the runt of Ridley Scott’s litter. Therefore, it is still leaps and bounds beyond the next closest pretenders to the throne of grandest historical film of the last 20 years, namely Braveheart and Troy (even though both are superb in their own ways).
The main problem with Robin Hood is the complex and convoluted plot, namely Robin Longstride’s (Russell Crowe) history and identity, and the straining of the necessary willing suspension of disbelief required to swallow all of the coincidences that pile up, and are necessary for Robin to transition from yeoman bowman, to champion of the Magna Carta, to ultimate greenwood outlaw. Obviously, and meritoriously, Scott, Crowe and Helgeland are attempting to draw upon and infuse their Robin Hood character with a sampling from every theory, possibility, and thematic ideal that can be gleaned from the much speculated upon character of the “real Robin Hood,” who remains forever shrouded in the mist of lost history and legend. In many tales, Robin Hood was a rascally yeoman do-gooder, an archer in Richard The Lionheart’s crusader army, an honorable baron or nobleman driven to the life of an outlaw by a corrupt king and sheriff, and a champion of equal rights and representation before the law of all men, or some combination of the aforementioned... Crowe’s Robin Longstride aka Robin Loxley aka Robin Hood is every one of these characters in succession. He changes roles so quickly that Crowe doesn’t get the chance to establish himself as either in as convincingly a manner as he did as Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator. Where Maximus was easy to latch onto believably and emotionally as the “father of a murdered son, husband to a murder wife…” and “the general who became a slave who became a gladiator” who became the savior of Rome, Robin Hood is the rascally orphan archer and crusader who becomes a deserter from Richard’s army, who becomes a baron’s son’s imposter, who becomes the adoptive son of said baron (who’s friend and Robin’s true father was the author of the Magna Carta), who then becomes the champion of the rights of man, who then becomes the savior of England, and finally becomes an outlaw of the realm when an ungrateful King John tosses both him and his (Robin’s) father’s Magna Carta into the flames…confused? Maybe not…but, most likely a bit overwhelmed, and slightly disbelieving in the plausibility of this Robin Hood’s possible or even likely existence.
Where Robin Hood fails to emotionally or believably get us to invest in the likelihood of this Robin’s story, it does manage to emotionally and believably get us to invest in the overall theme and spirit of the film. Scott and company are telling a story that revolves around the ideas of equal representation before law and the rule of law that were burgeoning during the time of “the real” Robin Hood’s” lifetime, namely the 10th and 11th Centuries. The Magna Carta (which features prominently in the film—even if not specifically named as such) is seen by many historians to be a very early (and honestly not very inclusive) precursor of the US Bill of Rights, at least philosophically. The History Channel recently aired a two hour special (which was directed by Ridley Scott himself) about the “Real Robin Hood.” It is a great cross between an exercise in historical speculation, a great civics lesson, and an examination of the “Real Robin Hood’s” time and that time’s societal and political changes that in turn inspired the Robin Hood legends. (In fact, it’s just as nearly worth the viewing as the film that inspired it.) As Russell Crowe states (in one of his many interviews during the special in which he explains the film’s overall theme), the idea of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor is treated more as a metaphor in Robin Hood than a literal action. Crowe’s Robin Longstride/Loxley/Hood attempts to steal the rights of man from the province of the nobles and the king, and give them to the everyman. Robin Hood accomplishes this goal superiorly. It’s just a shame that we don’t get as invested in Crowe’s character emotionally as well as we do with the film’s ideals intellectually.
As far as the action, direction, and acting goes, Robin Hood is top notch, as expected. While, as stated, Crowe never gets to settle into a role in the film for any length of time, he does wonders, again as expected, with what he has to work with story wise. His Merry Men are all fun to watch get drunk on mead and crack skulls when necessary, and are all likable characters in their own right if not very well developed or deep. The real standout, mainly because she gets to play a consistent role, is Cate Blanchett. As in every single role she undertakes, be it portraying Bob Dylan or Elizabeth I, Blanchett simply shines. Every gesture, look, squint of the eye, and step (even a misplaced one as she walks in a daze after hearing of the death of her husband) is masterfully and gracefully done. One truly believes and becomes fully emotionally invested in Blanchet’s Marian. She truly is the greatest female actress of our time, and will take her place amongst the greats of all time such as Katherine Hepburn (who Blanchet herself played in The Aviator, again masterfully), Meryl Streep, Betty Davis, and Audrey Hepburn. The venerable Max Von Sydow (who recently graced us with a brilliant performance in Martin Scorsese’s equally brilliant Shutter Island) does an excellent job as Walter Loxley (Robin’s “adoptive” father), and William Hurt brings his commanding power of attention and quiet intensity to the role of William Marshall. As far as the villainy goes, Mark Strong is devious and detestable as the scheming and vile Godfrey.
It would be an injustice to close this review without mentioning the incredible jobs done by senior art directors David Allday and Ray Chan, set decorator Sonia Klaus, and costume designer Janty Yates. These four manage to bring to life the most realistic and authentic looking medieval world ever captured on film. Just as Gladiator brought Ancient Rome to vivid and breathtaking life, Robin Hood brings to life the medieval period just as powerfully.
Overall, Robin Hood is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It is nearly as unfair as it is impossible to avoid comparing it to the mostly incomparable Gladiator, though. If there were no Gladiator, then Robin Hood might very possibly be the best of Scott’s historical films. There is a film by Scott called Gladiator though, and nothing, not even the notable Robin Hood, will ever compare with it in the historical film genre.
Rating: 7.5 /10