Don’t expect much swashbuckling in this turgid “beginnings” story of Robin Hood, just about redeemed by the actors.
JUN 13, 2010 – IN THESE REVISIONIST CLIMES, how can any self-respecting director commit to a straightforward narrative about a merry outlaw who robbed the rich and rewarded the poor? Ridley Scott, accordingly, imagines the inevitable “prequel” where, for starters, Little John isn’t acquainted with his future boss in a pissing contest on a log bridge. Friar Tuck, now something of an amateur apiarist with a thickset Olde English accent, announces himself as Friar Took. (The first time around, it sounded like he was interrupted mid-sentence. I kept waiting to know what the friar took.) Will Scarlet is no longer Robin Hood’s nephew, but a fellow archer in the army of the beleaguered Richard the Lionheart. And most disconcertingly, Maid Marian is no maid at all – unless Scott knows something we don’t, perhaps that the husband who left her after a week of marriage did so without choosing to exercise his conjugal rights (a highly unlikely turn of events, given that Marian arrives in the form of Cate Blanchett).
And that’s just the surface. Underneath lies the not insignificant insinuation that were it not for the urgent exhortations of Russell Crowe, the Magna Carta may never have been signed. How’s that for a revisionist take on history? That’s also the crux of the frustration with Robin Hood, this heedless conflation of timeless legend with Middle Ages fact and modern-day psychobabble. (Why is this Robin so not a merry man? Because his father abandoned him while he was young. Thankfully we’re spared the backstory that the Lincoln green tunic was, in reality, an attempt by drought-stricken Englishpeople to recall what a flourishing harvest looked like.) The Anglo-French courtly intrigue is mostly a drag. Scott is too high-minded to unleash on the proceedings a larger-than-life villain like Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, who had the decency to dine on half of Sherwood Forest by the time he was dispatched. The bad guy here (the chrome-domed Mark Strong) is an imperious bore who invites no identification with his movements and motivations.
It’s the domestic moments that redeem the drudgery. Blanchett and Crowe strike up a touchingly low-key rapport, situated someplace between the piquancy of youth (as portrayed by Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood) and the peevishness of dotage (Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian). When Marian helps Robin shed his chain mail, in preparation for a hot soak, the actors convey the sense of a silent spark, one that will never really ignite into a tempestuous fire. They’re practical people. They behave like grown-ups when they first meet, as strangers. They behave like grown-ups when we leave them, much in love. Twelfth-century England, aching from oppression by a king convinced that time and tithe can wait for no man, was probably not the most fertile breeding ground for passion amidst the yeomanry. Robin and Marian may be war-ready spitfires on the outside, but they appear tired inside. Blanchett and Crowe convince us that they’d like nothing better than to retreat into a cocoon of quiet contentment.
This twosome, however, is effortlessly upstaged by a couple of towering thespians. Eileen Atkins makes a marvellous Eleanor of Aquitaine, refusing to flinch even when her decadently wayward son, the future King John, stands up in bed and waves his erection in her direction. (She barges in on his lovemaking with a “French pastry,” his not-yet-spouse Isabella; the audience, mercifully, glimpses only the royal buttocks.) There’s enough indication that there was something very interesting going on in this household, especially between mother and son, and I wonder if Scott was hinting that John was something of a mama’s boy in more ways than one. Even later, when Eleanor slaps John, now king, he boasts to an aide, “I broke her skin more than she did mine.” Maybe Scott, while still on this revisionist rampage, should take a stab at The Lion in Winter next, with Henry and Richard completely sidelined. What a light that might cast on Eleanor’s confession from that film, “I am locked up with my sons. What mother does not dream of that?”
The other touch of silken class comes from Max von Sydow (as Sir Walter Loxley, father-in-law of Marian), who traverses a lifespan in his few moments of screen time. When he learns, from Robin, that his son is dead, his response is near-Shakespearean. Finally giving vent to emotions long-suppressed, he acknowledges, “My grief has been waiting for this day.” But as soon as he decides to make Robin a stand-in for his son, his youth returns – he chirps that he woke with “a tumescent glow.” What a pity, then, that Scott keeps abandoning his actorly assets in favour of numbing spectacle. The battles are staged with a terrible beauty, but once you’ve seen one attack with showers of arrows and spurts of scalding oil, you’ve seen them all. It’s only in the coda that Scott, finally, deigns to throw in images from inside our heads – a deer slung on a shoulder, an outlaw commune ensconced in the forest, Robin and Marian in each other’s arms. The end comes up just as the movie many of us walked in for has begun.
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