Movie Review: Robin Hood
The Charlotte Observer
Every era gets the Robin Hood it needs.
The Jazz Age saw the madcap, exuberant outlaw played by Douglas Fairbanks. Errol Flynn robbed the rich and aided the poor, fulfilling a fantasy during The Depression.
So it has gone down the decades, from Richard Greene’s bouncy TV hero in the Eisenhower years to Sean Connery’s weary, disillusioned Robin in the post-Vietnam period to Kevin Costner’s laid-back, West Coast Rob during the prosperous ’90s.
Now director Ridley Scott and writer Brian Helgeland have given us an intelligent, layered story suited to our grim, patience-trying times.
A bullheaded leader has run his country into crippling debt to support a pointless war in the Middle East. Church leaders have circled the wagons and are out of touch with common people. The nation – 12th-century England, in this case – is threatened from without by direct attacks and from within by terrorists who murder in the name of a foreign authority.
Marian of Loxley (Cate Blanchett) wouldn’t know the word “feminist,” but she is one: She runs her father-in-law’s estate while her husband fights in the Crusades, then dons armor herself when needed. And the hero is no longer a dispossessed aristocrat but an archer named Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), who ennobles himself by trying to elevate other commoners to a bit of power.
The film is never too cerebral. Whistling arrows and flashing swords take their tolls, and fans of “Gladiator” know Scott is never hesitant to splash blood. Yet it explains complicated politics clearly and positions Robin as the first truly modern hero, one we might be if we had sufficient humility, a clear head and a calm hand with a bow.
The movie overreaches only twice, with one miracle of soldiership (forgivable under the circumstances) and the idea that Robin’s dad wrote an early version of Magna Carta, the document that made England – and, by extension, most western nations – more democratic. (Though it didn’t help the average person, it protected the power of the nobles and made the king answer to law.)
If you remember the classic film “The Lion in Winter,” you can consider this a sequel. Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins) exercises power behind the scenes, as her sons struggle for power.
Egomaniacal Richard (Danny Huston) has gone off to crush Islam in the name of Christianity, though he’s as ruthless as his enemies. Whiny John (Oscar Isaac) dallies with French princess Isabella (Léa Seydoux), but he has problems: The French are ready to invade, and a British turncoat close to the throne (Mark Strong) is sowing confusion among English nobles, demanding taxes in John’s name and putting a torch to any protestors.
The story you may know from other versions is almost unrecognizable. The sheriff of Nottingham barely turns up. Nobody lives in Sherwood Forest, and the rich do all the robbing here. Marian and Robin are middle-aged; their courtship is almost inadvertent, and we take pleasure in watching these wary, taciturn people find each other.
Scott has reassembled much of his “Gladiator” team: not only Crowe, who delivers another growly, brooding performance, but cinematographer John Mathieson, editor Pietro Scalia and production designer Arthur Max, who supply grit and grandeur in the right measures. (Marc Streitenfeld came in to do the Celtic-flavored music.)
Yet “Robin Hood” improves on “Gladiator” in three ways. The first is the better balance of violence and philosophy. The second is the love story, more a meeting of equally complex characters.
The third is the modernity. None of us could have imagined ourselves as Maximus, fighting tigers and defying a mad emperor. But we can identify with Robin, and the finale of his story reminds us again – as if we needed reminding – how rarely the powerful suffer, and how often ordinary people have to eat their peck of dirt.