WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Escaping from disgruntled employer Richard the Lionheart, crack archer Robin Longstride and his cohorts stumble upon an ambush attempting to hijack the English crown for France. Obliged to return the crown to its rightful – if ungrateful – owner, Robin is forced into an embarrassing deception as he returns Robert Loxley’s sword to Nottingham, suddenly gaining a father, a strong-willed wife, and a band of merry men forced into action when England’s politics threaten to get very messy.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve never had much time for the Robin Hood legend. The story of England’s original working class hero has been told time and again on film and television, with varying degrees of skill, claims to authenticity, and Bryan Adams; and without actively avoiding them, I’ve not been drawn into watching any – even Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights left me cold. On the other hand, I’ve always had time for Ridley Scott, the naff G.I. Jane and interminable Kingdom of Heaven notwithstanding. So it was with a certain amount of optimism that I went to see his latest epic starring Gladiatorial hero Russell Crowe.
Robin Longstride (Crowe) is certainly a long way from Nottingham at the start of the film. He’s a bowman with a great grip on his arrows but a shakier grip on his own past, working for an English king plundering his way back to Britain after some disastrous Crusading. Robin falls foul of Richard (Danny Huston) by causing a ruckus and speaking plainly; but as the Lionheart breathes his last in France, Robin escapes with ‘Little’ John (Kevin Durand, 6ft 6in) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes). On the way, they happen upon an ambush where Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), charged to take Richard’s crown back to his brother John, is mortally wounded; Loxley gives Robin the crown and a further duty, to take a strangely familiar sword back to his father, Walter (Max von Sydow). Travelling under the guise of Robert Loxley, Robin and his companions arrive back in an England where the Crown lies uneasily on the head of the adulterous John (Oscar Isaac), who has dismissed his faithful servant William Marshal (William Hurt) in favour of the villainous Godfrey (Mark Strong), the very man who organised the ambush in an attempt to win the crown for his real boss, King Philip of France.
Robin makes it up to Nottingham where the Loxleys are struggling to eke out a living, plagued by a greedy church and King John’s punitive taxes. While Robert’s wife Marian (Cate Blanchett) is obviously not fooled by Longstride’s pretence of being her husband, blind Walter is prepared to promulgate the lie, especially if it keeps his community together. Besides, he knows something about Longstride’s past, which promises an important future for the humble archer. As Robert, Robin slowly makes a name for himself, gaining the people’s uncertain affections, including those of good-hearted ale-maker Friar Tuck (Mark Addy); and as Godfrey tries to manipulate the English landlords into a revolt against John’s army, paving the way for the French to stroll in unopposed, it is Robin who – much to Marian and Walter’s delight – takes up the cause of the dispossessed and vocally reasons with all sides to act in the common interest of the English people.
If you’re determined to do so, it’s easy to find fault with Scott’s take on the Robin Hood legend. For a start, there’s the inescapable sense that screenwriter Brian Helgeland has put the story through a Gladiatoriser (if you will), making Robin a natural warrior who falls in and out of favour with the ruling classes, assembling his own band to put things right, whilst the ruling classes (in a subplot which takes an age to become relevant) bicker amongst themselves. Add in a dash of romance inspired by Le retour de Martin Guerre (Sommersby, for anglophones) and an epic battle sequence lifted wholesale from Saving Private Ryan, complete with very un-12th Century landing craft, and there’s not a great deal here that you haven’t seen before. You do, though, have something different from the traditional Hood story, reducing the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) to an effete joke character, and playing down the whole ‘robbing from the rich and giving to the poor’ thing in favour of Robin awkwardly wooing Marian, complete with rom-com musical plinks and plonks. Though this doesn’t bother me much, to some this instantly makes Longstride an impostor as Hood. The film is also rife with anachronisms and oddities, including a score which emanates from the Emerald Isles and Titanic rather than the East Midlands.
Which brings me on to Crowe, whose choice(s) of accent for Robin Longstride have caused something of a rumpus in the UK, the famously short-fused actor taking umbrage at enquiries about its origins. Sadly for Russ, his accent really is a mess, taking several tours of the British Isles during the film: running up and down the length of England, stepping into Scotland when he starts declaiming, Braveheart style, and taking (however much he denies it) frequent detours into Ireland, particularly at the ends of words. It might be unfair to compare Crowe’s accent to English actors around him, but (as others have noted) fellow Antipodean Cate Blanchett sticks to a decent English accent and so does venerable Swede von Sydow. Rather than getting into a huff, Crowe should really have taken the comments on the chin.
Because – you know what? – I’d love to see a sequel to Robin Hood. None of the issues described above can stop this movie from being thoroughly enjoyable. For all his vocal faults, Crowe’s rugged charm still shines through, and he is helped along ably by von Sydow, Blanchett and the band of Merry Men as the message written on Loxley’s sword – ‘Rise and rise again until lambs become lions’ – is hammered home, given special significance for Robin himself once he remembers his own father (his forgetfulness is contrived, but it just about works). The rest of the cast is strong, too: William Hurt is a model of nobility; Isaac a splendidly oily and nasty King John, with a charming vein of sarcastic humour and the dependable Eileen Atkins as his Mum. Best of all, though, is Mark Strong, his Godfrey a despicable, disfigured villain who plays both sides superbly, a man for whom you feel such instant antipathy that the film’s climax becomes enormously satisfying, quite aside from the visual thrill of the battle. Robin Hood is, unsurprisingly, beautifully shot; Scott, together with cinematographer and regular co-worker John Mathieson, really knows how to frame a scene, and some of the shots of the English riding to the [Welsh!] coast to meet the French are simply stunning.
I’ve watched a few films recently that haven’t been good by any stretch of the imagination, but have been entertaining in their badness (Exhibit A, Ridley’s brother’s Déjà Vu). Robin Hood isn’t one of those movies: despite its many flaws and incongruities, it is at heart a decent, well-made film, one I sat through without checking my watch once – which is more than can be said for my experience of the all-conquering Avatar.