Robin Hood

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 In the new "Robin Hood," reteaming with Russell Crowe, his favorite actor, director Ridley Scott has crafted a prequel (a back story) to the tale of one of the most beloved outlaws and mythic heroes in history. Going out of their way to show a new angle, Scott and his scribe Brian Helgeland have made an uneven feature about the background of the man and his times, which offers few of the rousing pleasures that the public associates with Hollywood's medieval action-adventures.
Old-fashioned, this "Robin Hood" is more of a character than action-driven, and more of an historical drama than a genuinely exciting epic.  The film pays admirable attention to historical detail and political context as far as diplomatic relations and family intrigues are concerned–at a certain price. End result is a verbose (especially in the first hour), serious-minded, grim film, containing some declamatory speeches about democracy, justice and rights. 
Those expecting an exciting feature with rousing battles and colorful costumes, in the mold of the swashbuckling epics starring Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, will be disappointed with this down-to-earth, realistic rendition, which leaves out a lot of the fun, wit and bravado we associate with the famous hero. 
There are four ways to look at Scott's "Robin Hood," in which star Crowe is also credited as a producer. First, as an addition to the subgenre of Robin Hood, which by now includes at least a dozen big-screen and small-screen renditions, this "Robin Hood" certainly makes an honorable contribution by telling an unfamiliar story, centering on Robin Longstride, the humble, ordinary man before he became extraordinary and legendary.
Second, as a panel in the growing output of the versatile director Ridley Scott (a three-time Oscar nominee), "Robin Hood" is posited somewhere between his "Kingdom of Heaven," which was both an artistic and commercial flop, and "Gladiator," the 2000 feature, which, despite mixed reviews, swept the Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor) and became a global blockbuster.
From a commercial standpoint, this "Robin Hood" is a mid-range player, likely to appeal to older demo groups than to teenagers, when Universal releases the film theatrically May 14. The romantic subplot and thrilling battles appear rather late in the proceedings (More about it later).
Finally, looked upon as an opening night of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, "Robin Hood" may be a good choice. Unlike openers of previous years, the film is not controversial–its politics are broad-minded and its sermons liberal–and it represents the kind of cinema that Hollywood still does better than other countries.
The above paragraphs suggest a decidedly mixed critical response: I went to see the picture wanting to like it, but instead found myself only half-engaged, bored by some of the talk, restless by the predominantly downbeat tone, but also impressed with the technical elements of the physical production.      
At first sight, star Crowe, while looking brawny, seems a tad too old for playing the man who became Robin Hood, too grave for the man who later dispensed wealth with the poor.   Moreover, Crowe may suffer from inevitable comparisons with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn (but not Kevin Costner) and other men (Sean Connery) who played the well-known hero in historical, modern, and post-modern variations.
Set in the early part of the 13th century (from the death of King Richard I in 1199 to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, to be exact), "Robin Hood" chronicles the life of an expert archer, initially only interested in self-preservation during his service in the army of King Richard (Danny Huston) against the French. 
 
Upon Richard’s death, a traumatic event which is well handled in the film, Robin gets hold of the crown, which he takes back to London in disguise, as Sir Robert Loxley. Later on, he travels to Nottingham, a shabby town that suffers from the corruption of a despotic sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen), bad economy and worse crops, and crippling taxation. 
 
In Nottingham, Robin falls for the young, spirited widow Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett), a tough woman who's at first skeptical of the crusader's identity and real motivations. Hoping to earn the hand of Maid Marion and salvage the village, Robin then assembles a gang, notorious for its lethal mercenary skills.   
 
To be fair, Helgeland, working from a story by Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris, and himself, depicts in detail the broader socio-political contexts in which Robin lived and became (or was forced into becoming) a hero.  A country weakened from decades of war, England is embattled from the ineffective rule of the new king, and vulnerable to insurgencies from within and threats from without (wars with France). Confronting corruption in the local village, Robin and his band challenge the crown to alter the balance of power between the king and his subjects.   
 
Also commendable is the filmmakers' attention to the secondary characters. Early on, Sir William Marshal (William Hurt) and especially Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins) feature prominently. While the conflict between Prince John and Marshall is credibly presented, the tensions between the Queen Mother and her son are not, perhaps a result of anachronistic dialogue, in which there is too much modernist emphasis on mother–son melodramatics. "(The Lion in Winter," in which Katharine Hepburn played Eleanor of Aquitaine suffered from the same problem).
 
Fortunately, in the film's second half, two engaging subplots are placed at the center. The tale takes an overly explicit Freudian psychological approach to the relationship between Sir Walter Loxley (played by the majestic Max von Sydow), a strong righteous man, and his son who died in battle, and then between Loxley and Robin, who becomes sort of a surrogate son.  The interaction between Loxley and Robin is interspersed with flashbacks, in which the young Robin witnesses the death of his own father.
 
Marion is introduced early on, in an argument with the local church, but she doesn’t fully come into the story until the third reel. As played by Blanchett, she is a tough, harsh widow, struggling to keep her land and her workers. Blanchett is excellent at conveying the essence of a sexually repressed and emotionally barren femme, burdened with a ten-year marriage to a man she had barely known, because he was always fighting somewhere. 
 
Bringing a much needed touch of humor, but far less convincing or authentic, are the sequences depicting the courtship between Robin and Marion, which in dialogue and tone lift the bickering, reconciliation, and romance right out of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" (made into the musical "Kiss Me Kate"). "Now asks me nicely," Robin, who pretends to be her husband, keeps telling Marion.
 
Under Scott's expert hand, most of the secondary performers rise to the occasion. As befits his name, Mark Strong is particularly good as Sir Godfrey, the bilingual advisor who manipulates the king.   It's Godfrey who sabotages King John's relations with the barons and orchestrates the French invasion. Bringing gravity to his part, von Sydow renders the most emotional performance as the blind Sir Walter Foxley, fighting for honor and justice to the bitter end. It takes time, but Oscar Isaac finally warms up as the sly and cunning Prince and then King John.
 
Two parts are underdeveloped, that of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew MacFadyen), who comes across as one-dimensional, and Robin’s Merry Men, Will Scarlet, Little John and Allan A’Dayle (played by Scott Grimes, Kevin Durand, and Alan Doyle, respectively), who in previous versions have added considerable color and bravado to the tale.
 
As for the brawny Crowe, he commands respect but does not project charisma as a natural born leader. The actor suggests an overly serious, honorable hero, committed to the cause of protecting his beloved England from slipping into bloody civil war, vowing to return to his country the kind of glory it had once possessed.  Judging by Crowe's demeanor and behavior, it's hard to see what would later make him such a legendary hero. 
 
Filmed on location in England and Wales, the film boasts the kind of look we have come to expect from a Ridley Scott production. Title cards indicate the specific time and place of the story, including names of castles and forests.  The handsome physical production is the joint product of a skillful crew of longtime Scott collaborators, many of whom worked on "Gladiator," including ace cinematographer John Mathieson, who impresses with some wonderful high-crane tracking shots, and more or less smooth integration of the CGI effects with the real extras in the battle set-pieces. 
 
The joint work of production designer Arthur Max, costume designer Janty Yates, editor Pietro Scalia, and composer Marc Streitenfeld accounts for a visually striking if old-fashioned picture, which ultimately pleases the eyes more than the mind or heart.  I have to admit that my perception of this "Robin Hood" as an illustrated history lesson is tainted by my expectation (and preconception) to be emotionally stirred and excited.
 
Cast
 
Robin Longstride – Russell Crowe
Marion Loxley – Cate Blanchett
William Marshal – William Hurt
Godfrey – Mark Strong
Friar Tuck – Mark Addy
Prince John – Oscar Isaac
King Richard the Lionheart – Danny Huston
Little John – Kevin Durand
Will Scarlet – Scott Grimes
Sheriff of Nottingham – Matthew Macfadyen
Eleanor of Aquitaine – Eileen Atkins
Father Tancred – Simon McBurney
Sir Walter Loxley – Max von Sydow
Credits
 
A Universal release presented with Imagine Entertainment in association with Relativity Media of a Brian Grazer production in association with Scott Free Prods.
Produced by Grazer, Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe.
Executive producers, Charles J.D. Schlissel, Michael Costigan, Jim Whitaker, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Co-producer, Nikolas Korda.
Co-executive producer, Michael Ellenberg.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Screenplay, Brian Helgeland; story, Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris.
Camera, John Mathieson.
Editor, Pietro Scalia.
Music, Marc Streitenfeld.
Production designer, Arthur Max; supervising art director, John King; art directors, Mark Homes, Adam O'Neill, Matt Robinson, Mike Stallion, Tom Still, Mark Swain, Remo Tozzi, Alex Cameron, Anthony Caron-Delion; set decorator, Sonja Klaus.
Costume designer, Janty Yates.
Sound, Tony Dawe, John Mooney; supervising sound editors, Wylie Stateman, Mark Stoeckinger; re-recording mixers, Paul Massey, David Giammarco.
Visual effects supervisor, Richard Stammers; visual effects, MPC, Hammerhead Prods., Prime Focus, Invisible Effects, Lola VFX.
Stunt coordinator, Matthew Sampson.
Associate producer, Keith Rodger.
Assistant director, Max Keene.
Second unit director, Alexander Witt.
Casting, Jina Yay.
 
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 140 Minutes