Written by David Burroughs
“That’s a lot of French” – King John (Oscar Isaac)
Having canned the concept “Nottingham”, a retelling of the Robin Hood story from the perspective of the titular Sheriff, we instead find ourselves with Robin Hood. However, with little adherence to either the well-known myth or historical accuracy, does Ridley Scott’s new partnership with Russell Crowe stand up to their earlier collaborations?
While it takes a considerable portion of the film to spell it out, Robin Hood is not the traditional tale of Robin Hood, and those expecting it to be so will be sorely disappointed. It is an origin story. As a returning soldier form the Crusades, clearly now an unshakable part of the myth, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) finds himself fleeing the army with which he has served for a decade, and returning to England, finding himself entangled within the complex world of medieval politics. Along the way all the familiar faces appear, from Lady Marian to Little John and Will Scarlet, but entirely absent are the traditional conflict between Nottingham and Robin, and Sherwood Forest appears to be the home of the Lost Boys. Despite the framework of locations and characters, it is a story of conflict between England and France, at the centre of which is Robin, as he uncovers his past and fights for his country.
Seeing the return of Crowe under the direction of Ridley Scott would naturally lead us to assume that we would be seeing a spiritual successor to their 2000 film, Gladiator, but instead we find a film considerably weaker than its predecessor. Russell Crowe is almost entirely two-dimensional, his loyalties shifting visibly between self-interest and unflinching loyalty to the shining concept of a free England. Which part of England remains questionable throughout though; despite Robin’s Northern origins, Crowe’s English accent shifts schizophrenically throughout the film from Scottish, to Irish, to Geordie, before finally resting on a more recognisably Northern accent for the grand finale. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Marion, on the other hand, is initially a refreshing change of pace. She entirely succeeds in portraying a strong female lead who is clearly stuck in a situation dictated by her sex and her economic situation. Nevertheless, as the film progresses, this role becomes a little inconsistent, and at one moment we find her fighting alongside an army while at another we find her swooning over Russell’s Robin. Perhaps it’s the accents? Meanwhile, the big villain of the piece is King John’s henchman, Godfrey, played by Mark Strong. If you are one of the many people who liked Mark Strong’s roles as criminal masterminds in Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass, then you will fully appreciate his efforts in Robin Hood – there is very little difference. As an actor who has only recently become recognisable, it is sad to see him type-cast so quickly.
Despite the three lead characters, the rest of the cast unfortunately fit too comfortably into the category of “gritty stereotypes”. The arrogant, but weak King John, played by Oscar Isaac, feels painfully similar to that of Joaquin Phoenix’s emperor from Gladiator, but we are never given sufficient reason to hate him, and by the end he is little more than shouting and one-liners. In the meantime the English nobility blindly believe in a better England and the French are portrayed as an invading hoard of murderers and rapists. Heaven forbid that the writers permit fellow country-men to turn against one another in this classic English story. The Sheriff of Nottingham is little more than a bumbling idiot, and the King of France in particular, who is the absentee antagonist of the film, appears in about three scenes, and at his most evil when he accidently cuts his thumb. The motivations, like much of the plot, boil down to a simplistic rivalry between France and England.
Despite the obligatory scene of Robin firing an arrow an absurd distance and striking a perfect hit, there is little here which one would naturally associate with a Robin Hood film. The rich are not robbed, and Robin’s kleptomania is saved purely for the dead and the church, or when it can impress Marian. What is left, once you accept that this is not a retelling of the Robin Hood myth, is a medieval political conspiracy which lacks any historical foundations. The middle of the film is predictable in its formulaic handling of relationships and character growth, and there is little substance between the two unsatisfying battles which bookend the film. Despite Crowe’s protestations that any semblance of an Irish accent during his performance was “bollocks” when interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row program, I maintain that many of you who go to see if shall find his accents as inconsistent as the rest of the plot. The finale leaves a gaping hole ready to be filled by a sequel, which if you were understandably misled by the advertising, should be the film you were expecting to see this time round. One can only hope that the ‘Nottingham’ project isn’t entirely dead, but can live on if they insist on taking this story any further.