ROBIN HOOD: Starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Eileen Atkins, Danny Huston and Léa Seydoux. Produced and directed by Ridley Scott. Rated M (violence and infrequent sexual references). 140 mins.
Reviewed by Jan Epstein
ROBIN Hood is one of England’s best loved legendary heroes.
Many films have been made about this patriot, who with his band of merry men defended the rights of common men and women against the predations of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Ridley Scott’s much anticipated Robin Hood is intended as a prequel to these films, an attempt to contextualise the legendary Robin Hood with what was really happening in the world at that time.
But not everyone will enjoy Scott’s new version, which in the course of setting the record straight, plumps defiantly for historicity and grim social realism over poetry and flights of fancy.
Set in the aftermath of the Third Crusade in 1199, Russell Crowe plays Robin Longstride, a skilled archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart, who returns to England after the death of Richard during the attack on a French castle, with two objects in mind: to bring home the crown of King Richard to the King’s grieving mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), and to honour his pledge to Robert of Loxley, to return the slain man’s sword to his father Sir Walter (Max von Sydow).
Robin, orphaned at an early age, assumes the identity of Robert of Loxley and returns to England with his companions Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle), Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), where he is shocked by the poverty of the people, who are forced to pay extortionate taxes to fund the crusades, and the resulting devastation of the countryside.
Robin rides on to Nottingham, where he meets and is smitten by Loxley’s wife, the resilient and courageous Maid Marion.
Walter, who knows Robin’s true lineage, persuades Robin to continue assuming his son’s identity, partly to ensure that the now-widowed Marion will not become destitute after his death.
It is in Nottingham that Robin discovers his true mission: to protect the people of Nottingham from the tyranny of King John (Oscar Isaac), and to join forces with men such as Earl William Marshal (William Hurt), in the struggle to head off the threat to English sovereignty posed by King Phillip of France, through traitors such as the vicious and sinister Godfrey (Mark Strong).
Ridley Scott is one of England’s finest and most interesting filmmakers, and while some of his films (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Hannibal) fail to excite the imagination in the same way as Gladiator, or cutting-edge successes such as The Duellists, Bladerunner, and Thelma and Louise, his great gift for visual poetry and lighting has always been wedded to the need to make the world in which his stories are set appear authentic and real.
This mixture of the historically real and the imaginative was successfully achieved in his crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven, although it was not universally admired.
And for many, Scott’s second take on the crusades will prove equally problematic.
Scriptwriter Brian Helgeland (L. A. Confidential, A Knight’s Tale) has conflated the legend of Robin Hood with King John’s (mostly factual) war against the French, as well as his battle on the home front against England’s rebellious Saxon barons, which culminated in the signing in 1215 of the Magna Carta.
Helgeland also attempts to throw light on who “Robin Hood” really was.
And while it is impossible at this distance to know, Helgeland makes a good fist of it by positing a link between Robin Hood’s fictional father (‘Thomas Longstride’) and the Charter of the Forest, which was a little known charter imposed by the English barons upon King John in 1217, as part of the Magna Carta.
Many viewers of Robin Hood will feel that this material interferes with the story they know and love.
They may also feel confused by the manner of its telling, because on the whole this extra material is rather clumsily interposed.
Others, however (this reviewer included), will find Scott’s retelling of the legend, while rather dour and restrained, also uncommonly interesting and compelling.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.