Film Review: Robin Hood

Apparently grim and gritty makeovers of iconic heroes aren’t just for comic-book movies anymore. England's legendary bandit and his merry men acquire a somber new origin in Ridley Scott's ambitious but turgid historical epic.

With Robin Hood, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland attempt a Batman Begins-style reboot of a mythology and a character that have loomed large in the public imagination for centuries. The popular legend goes as so: While good King Richard was off fighting his Crusade in the latter half of the 12th century, England was at the mercy of his ne’er-do-well brother John. Enter the cheeky outlaw known as Robin Hood, an expert archer who lived in Sherwood Forest along with a small army of “merry men” and took up bow-and-arrow against King John and his royally appointed enforcers—like the dastardly Sherriff of Nottingham—by robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

Never mind that the historical record doesn’t entirely support this version of events; indeed, there’s still significant doubt over whether Robin Hood existed at all. The reason the legend has endured is that it’s first and foremost a great story, one that captures the tensions that were present in England at that time and, more importantly, can translate to any setting where oppression (real or imagined) leads people to look for a courageous, resourceful hero to protect and defend them.

In the past, Robin Hood’s cinematic exploits have happily ignored the facts in favor of the legend. 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood remains the ne plus ultra of the character’s big-screen outings, thanks largely to Errol Flynn’s lively portrayal of Robin as a laughing, swashbuckling daredevil. Even those movies that purportedly seek to take a more realistic approach to the material—such as 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner in the title role—tend to stick to the familiar bullet points of Robin Hood lore. To their credit, Scott and Helgeland do approach the task of revising this well-established mythology seriously. Far more than just the story of a single man, their film attempts to tell the tale of an entire country and the specific circumstances that would give rise to a figure like Robin Hood.

This new adventure of Robin Hood departs from the traditional narrative in the very first scene, setting the audience down outside the walls of a besieged castle in Châlus, France in 1199, the very time and place where King Richard (played here by Danny Huston) was mortally wounded by a well-aimed arrow. Among the ranks of the British army is a lowly yeoman who goes by the unassuming name Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe). Upon hearing of Richard’s death, the disillusioned soldier decides to turn deserter, but en route to freedom he happens to witness the murder of the king’s right-hand man Robin Loxley, who is bearing the crown back to England where it will be placed atop John’s (Oscar Isaac) head. With his dying breath, Loxley requests that Longstride complete this mission and then continue north to Nottingham to inform his family of his passing.

This encounter stirs what little idealism remains in Robin’s heart, so he fulfills the man’s requests, dropping the crown off in London before heading towards the Loxley estate where the dead man’s wife Marion (Cate Blanchett) and father Walter (Max von Sydow) still live. After delivering the grim news, he’s tasked with and reluctantly accepts another unwanted assignment: impersonate Robin Loxley so that the family homestead isn’t seized by greedy debt collectors. Meanwhile, back in London, intrigue stalks the royal court, as John’s trusted advisor Godfrey (Mark Strong) secretly schemes with the French to turn the English people against their new ruler, thus allowing for a surprise invasion. Other issues weigh heavily upon the new wearer of the crown as well, such as his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine’s (Eileen Atkins) disapproval of his new wife and a possible revolt by England’s barons over his harsh taxation policies.

So much of the film’s first hour is given over to these throne-room machinations, one almost suspects that Scott and Helgeland would rather have made a film about young King John rather than Robin Hood. They certainly don’t seem all that eager to hurry the titular hero through his journey; it takes Longstride 30 minutes to get from France to England and another half-hour has elapsed by the time he finally arrives in Nottingham. And since Crowe’s glum demeanor doesn’t make Robin the most compelling of heroes, Isaac, Strong, Atkins and William Hurt (playing William Marshal, another one of John’s advisors) are able to handily steal the audience’s attention.

As written by Helegland, these early sequences feel like the prelude to a far more complex and interesting movie, one that takes a broader view of history instead of focusing on a single turf war in Nottingham. Scott’s commitment to realism is one of his strengths as a filmmaker—an ad man by trade, he always seeks to sell the audience on the worlds his movies take place in, be they historical (Gladiator) or futuristic (Blade Runner)—and Robin Hood offers up an appropriately squalid version of medieval England. London, for example, isn’t depicted as the bustling city of the 15th or even the 13th centuries, but rather as a small fort town, with a collection of thatched huts lying in shadow of the king’s castle. And the Loxley “estate” is a drafty, dingy place, where animals sleep in front of enormous hearths and the stone floors are covered with hay.

If only the film had a dramatic pulse to complement its superb production values! Sadly, Robin Hood is often stultifyingly boring, particularly in its second half when the focus shifts to Longstride full-time, as he prepares to defend Nottingham against the invading French forces and learns about his own mysterious past in a poorly written subplot that makes little sense. Crowe seems so dour, so disinterested in his own role that one longs for the overly earnest heroics of Kevin Costner. None of his co-stars is able to rouse a single spark of energy from him, not even his supposed love interest Blanchett, who essentially plays Marion as a medieval version of Scarlett O’Hara, all fiery temper and defiant posturing.

Helgeland and Scott’s admirable desire to draw from the historical record also begins to work against them, as they strain to connect the title character to larger events. The movie reaches its nadir when Longstride stands before King John and essentially pitches him the idea for what will become the Magna Carta. This ridiculous sequence is followed by a climactic battle that’s meant to wow, but instead inspires yawns and derisive chuckles. Designed to leave off where the legend begins—with Robin living in Sherwood Forest as an outlaw—Robin Hood’s final moments can’t help but feel anticlimactic. The audience has spent over two hours following this character only to discover that the most interesting part of his story starts after the credits roll.