Nothing Merry About 'Robin Hood'
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Ridley Scott's revisionist epic, which just launched the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, has earned lavish praise for toughening up and enlarging the quaint, oft-told tale of Robin Hood. Apparently, the best way to get back to basics, as opposed to revisiting soft-headed myth, is to drain almost all color and joy from a very long (140 minutes) and episodic chronicle of the Big Events preceding Robin's days as outlaw hero in Sherwood Forest. So stiffen ye olde upper lip; this saga makes for grim going, with little of the sustaining sweetness and choreographed athleticism that characterized the Fairbanks and Flynn versions.
From France to Shakespeare's "sceptr'd isle," the prevailing weather of "Robin Hood" (visual, emotional and ethical) is gray and muddy, except, of course, among the Edenic green fields and forests of Nottingham. All that drear and damp's a real downer, because Scott shines brightest as a directorial swashbuckler, his vision heated up by the sheer sensuality of cinematic action and atmosphere. But that signature kinetic energy and flash is mostly MIA in "Robin Hood."
Heading home from his feckless crusade, Richard the Lionheart stops to besiege a French castle, aided by a troop of sharpshooting archers, including Robin (Russell Crowe) and pals Little John, Will Scarlet and Allan A'Dayle. Danny Huston plays Lionheart as an eye-catching promo for conscious charisma; that wholehearted, lively style is much-missed in the forthcoming parade of glum and interchangeable characters. You're led to expect, just for a moment, that this self-aware royal might actually reward Robin for his honest reckoning of the crusade as "godless." But the "honest, brave and naïve" commoner is soon in stocks, an outlaw in the making.
In short order, Richard's dead, and Robin's got his crown, a white horse fit for a king, and the sword that's the key to his becoming a new Arthur. Scott's radical "post-modern" take on history? Mix up juicy bits from anywhere and anytime and let stew. Did you know that Robin's stonemason dad actually penned the Magna Carta? That the French invasion of England was thwarted by our humble archer turned knight, only a little hampered by the fully armored Lady (not Maid) Marion (Cate Blanchett, reprising Queen Elizabeth)?
Leaving history aside, what about Robin's love life? With our once and future gladiator matched with a 12th century spitfire feminist, shouldn't we expect sparks to fly? Not so much. Despite lots of long looks exchanged in front of blazing fireplaces and around fire-lit dances, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Robin, off to war, blurts "I love you," and the heretofore self-contained Marion busses him passionately. Something very hot must have happened off-screen.
In "Gladiator," Crowe burned incandescently from the inside out; his riveting physicality was just another form of emotional expression. Here, Scott's go-to guy seems shut down, introverted, even at times lumpish. His Maximus owned arena and audience in "Gladiator"; in "Robin Hood," Crowe's one of the common people, sometimes just a grizzled face and gravelly voice in the democratic crowd.
As the blind nobleman who "adopts" Robin, Max von Sydow gives the best performance in the film, quietly projecting a grieving father without declaiming sonorously or giving in to ham. Delighted to have a "son" in the house again, the old man purrs, "I woke this morning with a tumescent glow."
In Scott's narrative hugger-mugger, it's just one thing after another: newly crowned King John (Oscar Isaac, master of cartoonish venality) diddles his French mistress, gleefully flashes his regal mom (Eileen Atkins as Eleanor of Aquitaine), taxes the hell out of everyone in sight. The British nobility's up in arms, and Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong, again typecast as hiss-worthy villain) smoothes the way for conniving frogs to overrun the homeland.
The action's here, there, and everywhere (helpfully labeled "London," "Broceliande Forest," "Nottingham," et al), but all this to-ing and fro-ing fails to advance the narrative with the compelling force you crave in movies. Scott seems to be casting about for the story's through line, while banking on periodic battle scenes, usually his forte, to grab and hold audience attention. Recall the terrible beauty and dynamic power of the opening clash in "Gladiator," and it's hard to believe the same director is responsible for the graceless muddle of the melees in "Robin Hood." In "Kingdom of Heaven," Scott looked down at a clutch of soldiers struggling in such close quarters, they could barely move, homicidal madmen wriggling in obscene embrace. But nothing as audacious or cogent as that image turns up in "Robin Hood." Even the big climactic action sequence as the Brits battle the French beachside feels confused and old-hat, a shadow of D-Day in "Saving Private Ryan."
The outlaw and his lady, finally at home in Sherwood, seem middle-aged, a little tired, hardly up for any heroic sequel. Significantly, Crowe and Blanchett are the same age as Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn were when they starred in Richard Lester's exquisite "Robin and Marian." For true post-modernist irony and angst, climb out of the dreary dirt and grime of "Robin Hood," and bite into Lester's bittersweet celebration of what aging heroes come to when times get small and mean.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.