by Richard von Busack
MY GRANDMOTHER had a unique expression for someone taking the out-of-the-way path: “You’re going by way of Robin Hood’s barn.” Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood—overlong, hideously expensive, graceless to the extreme—follows just that kind of route.
Robin Hood looks like three five-hour-long movies spliced into one unwieldy two-hour-plus feature. There’s probably never been such a politics-heavy version—and inevitably, it’s flavored by the tea bag rebellion. That tactic might be a natural. The characters complaining about the king’s taxes paying for foreign wars remind us of why the story is relevant, as if we hadn’t picked up on what a story of England’s worst king might have to do with a nation that had just weathered its worst president. But only Scott could have added a medieval version of D-Day to the legend.
Depressingly, this Robin Hood turns out to be a prequel to the Sherwood Forest days. It’s about Robin’s involvement in the end of the crusades, the civil war and the little-known French invasion of England in the early 1200s. The tale is interspersed with more political palaver than The Phantom Menace. At one meeting, Robin shouts that an Englishman’s home is his castle—this, centuries before Blackstone.
“Robin Longstride” (Russell Crowe), a yeoman in Richard the Lionheart’s army, is sickened by the massacre at Acre, the mention of which—again—is a little something related to today’s terrorist war. Escaping after His Majesty gets it in the neck, Robin decides to pose as a knight whom he meets dying in the forest. The killers are led by one Godfrey (Mark Strong, being the malo hombre again); Godfrey escapes, but he gets his mouth cut and marked up, Joker-wise, by a close shave from the point of Robin’s arrow.
In Nottingham, Robin meets the widow of the dead knight, Marion (Cate Blanchett in a wig as tall as she is). The lord of their small manor, her blind father-in-law (Max von Sydow) decides to do a Martin Guerre on this imposter, pretending that Robin is the same knight who left for the wars 10 years ago. But bits of hidden history have to wait as Godfrey—now King John’s chancellor—betrays his nation by secretly bringing in agents of the evil King Philip of France.
In one scene, having his chainmail taken off by Marian, Crowe shows us the powerful torso we would want in the hero, but his morose presence doesn’t lend itself to a story of a forest spirit—this has to be the least-sylvan Robin Hood ever made. Crowe looks less like a fox and more like a logy, depressed pit bull as the film tries to chug around him with more montages of burning villages and more meetings of angry Plantagenets; the only reason we know the film is coming to some conclusion is by seeing a CGI armada of medieval landing craft for the big finale.
Some big talents turn up to play royals and chancellors. Eileen Atkins is an uninterestingly scripted Eleanor of Aquitaine. Oscar Isaac perks up occasionally as the dandified King John (“It’s bloody expensive running a country”). Bearded and wigged, William Hurt has unusual presence playing the kingmaker William Marshal.
Huston never gets a real showstopper line as the Lionheart, but the shaggy mid-’70s rocker wig and beard and his general feverishness are certainly an idea of how a murderous conqueror should look—through the uncombed wool, one glimpses how Huston adds his own sweaty, malarial touch to the performance.
In a film full of moments that could be cut without anyone missing them, Scott decided to keep a bit about how Robin is the fatherless child who cannot triumph until he recovers a memory of his old man’s love. It’s not Crowe’s fault that he’s too old to play the rebellious youth, and it’s not screenwriter Brian Hegeland’s fault that we just got this same trope in Iron Man 2 last week, but this bit is particularly obvious here, and it’s a screenwriter’s crutch that needs to go to the Goodwill ASAP.
Crunching battles break out—figures ride up and stick swords into each other captured in stuttery Private Ryan–like attacks. But this is also a Robin Hood movie where there isn’t much archery—despite the CG-aided arrow flights, we don’t get an impression of what a fearsome thing the longbow was. Whether it’s a castle siege, a cliff top defense action or a skirmish in a village, the fighting always looks the same: like a football scrimmage seen from muddy ground view.
Scott even breaks such sturdy old-time rules as having riders ride in the same direction they were riding in the previous scene. A classic setup—for instance, a cornered heroine defending herself from an attacker—is ruined by Scott cutting to a scene has nothing to do with the attack, except in the sense that it’s synchronistic.
What’s good about this movie? Not much—Mark Addy, as the proto-Franciscan Friar Tuck, looks medieval; he has a face you’d see in a Brueghel. The waterfront welcoming ceremony at the Tower of London gives us a moment of beauty and stillness. Atkins’ face as she receives her dead son’s crown is properly regal; and there’s some spirit to a CGI view of one of the pagan chalk horse carved into a hillside, looking brand-new, overlooking a rally of mounted barons. Blanchett’s slow burn does its old magic for a second, but these are instances. Robin Hood is harried, awkward and bombastic—the nervousness of the filmmakers and the cast is palpable, as if even they couldn’t explain why they were making a new version of this old story.