“Mother, spare me your farmyard memories. You have none and I don’t understand them.” ~ Prince John
“We can’t repay our good luck with bad grace, it invites darkness.” ~ Robin
“Once before I said goodbye to a man going to war. He never came back.” ~ Marian
Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) took on the story of the archer from Sherwood Forest in 2010 in the film Robin Hood, which actually tells an origin story for the legendary outlaw. Starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, the film is a revisionist tale written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, 42) and produced by Scott, Brian Grazer, and Crowe. In essence, it looks at the man before he was the outlaw.
We first meet Robin Longstride (Crowe), an archer in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), coming home from the Crusades and involved in a siege of a French castle. He’s disillusioned by war, wants to go home, and finds his opportunity to leave with fellow soldiers Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A’Dale (Alan Doyle) when the King is killed in battle. The band of men withdraw in the confusion, and come across an ambush of some of the King’s officers by French soldiers led by the treacherous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), an English knight in league with the French King. One of the dying knights asks him to return the crown to England and his own sword to his father. Robin and his comrades decide to impersonate the knights to secure their passage home.
And so home to England the unlikely band goes, where bearing the crown and the assumed identity of Sir Robert Loxley, Robin informs the royal family of the death of Richard. Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is crowned king, and Robin meets the trusted advisor William Marshall (William Hurt) before setting off for Nottingham to carry out the second request. It is there where he and his men meet Sir Robert’s father Walter (Max von Sydow) and his widow Marian (Blanchett), and where an unlikely arrangement is made to allow the impersonation to continue. Along the way they encounter the local sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen, criminally underused in the role).
Helgeland has quite a history as a screenwriter and occasional director, with an attention to detail and a preference for strong characterization. That gets its due here, along with the epic sweep of battle and the intimacy of slow romance. It certainly does play around with history- the notion of the Magna Carta is more of an idea that Robin comes up with in a proposal to the new king to unite his country, as opposed to what it was. He was actually the last screenwriter in a series to take on Scott’s project, after other scripts didn’t meet the director’s standards. His story emphasizes themes like war weariness and the balance between justice and vengeance, as well as the notion of fair treatment. Along the way things get muddied up somewhat.
Most of the film was done on location in the United Kingdom, with set pieces including castles and villages erected on site and details added as the long production process went along. It certainly does look English, with a bleak, windswept look to the whole production. Scott’s direction certainly brings with it an expertise in action and epic subjects; his camerawork is particularly effective in long views during battle sequences along the coast, giving us two opposing armies having at each other. Yet he also knows how to convey action in the midst of it all. At the same time, Scott knows when to step back and let the actors work. There are times, though, in the story, where you’re left wondering if the bleakness of the surroundings is overtaking the film itself.
The cast as a whole are well chosen. Danny Huston is one of those terrific character actors who makes a role interesting, and I’ve never seen him give a bad performance. He plays Richard as not quite the noble king we might expect, but somewhat devious and not quite so understanding. Oscar Isaac plays his younger brother John as the vain, insecure, and temperamental figure that he’s so often portrayed as; the real John must be spinning in his grave at how he’s been dragged through the mud in so many Robin Hood stories for centuries. Mark Strong, another great character actor with a particular skill for playing villains, cads, and ne’er do wells in films like Stardust, Sherlock Holmes, John Carter, and The Young Victoria, is delightfully nasty and cruel as Sir Godfrey, the traitorous knight with ambitions all his own. He’s really the villain of the story, a side-winding bastard out for himself, and ready to cast aside anyone in his way.
William Hurt gets a good role as William Marshall, a real life figure at the time. He’s a character who’s fair minded and wise; a good advisor who suddenly finds himself on the outside, disregarded by his new king, and yet still a man who believes in his country and understands who he can trust. Eileen Atkins plays Eleanor, mother to two kings. She’s favoured her elder son Richard, which leaves her in something of an antagonistic relationship with John, and Atkins brings the dignity of an actress with a long working career to the role. Max von Sydow, who seems to have been around forever, gets another good late career role as Sir Walter Loxley, a pragmatic man who’s basically decent and who sees something of worth in Robin. Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice, MI5) gets underused as the sheriff of Nottingham, but when we do see him, the character is lecherous and greedy.
The inner circle of the Merry Men (though they’re not called that) are nicely chosen. Durand has the look of a tough man who’s been around the block a few times, and he has a blunt, hard personality that suits Little John very well indeed. Scott Grimes has a very everyman sort of look to him, but it suits his Will Scarlet well. Alan Doyle is actually the front man of the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, and brings his natural charm as a singer to the minstrel-soldier Allan A’Dale. These three actors would end up reuniting with Crowe for a guest turn on a Canadian television series of all things, Republic of Doyle (check youtube for Russell Crowe and that show title, and you can find it). The English actor Mark Addy rounds out the group as Friar Tuck, as boisterous as you might expect him.
I like Cate Blanchett’s take on Marian. She plays the character as intelligent and strong willed, capable of managing well on her own. There’s loyalty to her; she has stayed for years with her father-in-law while her husband, who she was only married to briefly before he went off to the Crusades, has been gone. And she gives the character courage and a headstrong personality.
Russell Crowe gives Robin a good amount of gravity and weight (while wavering between sounding English or Scottish). There are hints of his Maximus from Gladiator in how he plays the character: disillusioned and tired of war, a bit downtrodden by futility. The bleakness he seems to travel through weighs on him, and yet there’s more to the man. He has a certain ingenuity and quick wit, and a sense of fair play and justice. It allows him to say what he thinks- even if others don’t like what he has to say. His Robin comes alive with Marian, and yet the two actors wisely let their characters do a slow burn and get to know each other.
The film is not completely successful. The bleakness of it all is sometimes overwhelming, and playing around with history in the way that it does adds to that (though not in the overwhelming way that you get with Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot). It does feel at times like Gladiator transplanted to medieval England. And it leaves the Sheriff of Nottingham stranded in pretty much cameo status. Still, an uneven Ridley Scott film has more going for it than many other films, and as a director he’s never dull. Taken as a whole, I do like the film, though it’s not my favourite interpretation of the character.