Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 16, 2010 3:24 pm 
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Robin Hood the prequel

I take it that the humorlessness of the new Ridley Scott Robin Hood film is just the way things came out rather than by any firm design to drain all merriment out of the merry men, Friar Tuck, Little John, et al. The cinematic panache of this popular English legend of the 1200's has dropped ever since Eroll Flynn. Kevin Costner (1991) was never noted for that quality. And a more dour and gloomy Robin Hood than Russell Crowe would be hard to find. Jake Gyllenhaal was doubtless busy camping it up as a Persian prince for Disney. Now, Scott's folks in this movie, the yeomen and the wenches, do try to be jolly. There's a lot of dancing of the earnestly medieval drum-beating, foot-stomping kind. The trouble is it's' much outweighed by those other medieval activities, boiling-oil casting, arrow-shooting, sword-fighting, and dying of wounds. You may really miss that dashing fellow in the green cap. Mr. Crowe is dressed in sweaty grays.

In narrative terms this version of the popular hero represents a series of choices among varying historical (or unhistorical) legends with some new flourishes added, notably one about the Magna Carta. Early ballads apparently do not explain why Robin became an outlaw. The stories differ on whether he's a nobleman or a yeoman of noble character, though his rank has gone up over time. King John, the younger brother who succeeded Richard the Lionhearted, has not fared well in history, and here he's a selfish upstart who allies with an impostor, Godfrey, who's English when he wants to be but works for the King of France, a slovenly wretch who slurps raw oysters and hides from the battles. The writers give Crowe's Robin a new gambit. When first seen he's a guy known as Robin Longstride returning, wearily, from the Crusades. He is present when a nobleman, Robert of Loxley, is killed in a skirmish with the French, and King Richard has just died too, so Robin becomes Robert, urges his best mates to pretend to be knights, and brings news of the king's death back to the English court. It's a tricky maneuver, and the wily Godfrey doesn't buy it.

When he's in danger of getting wiped out by the French and needs all the help he can get, this new King John agrees to Crowe's Robin to sign a pact to grant rights to the people. But later he reneges on the promise and declares Robin an outlaw to avoid being bothered by him further. This leaves unexplained King John's actual association with signing the Magna Carta.

What struck me as most strange and most interesting was having the venerable (and still wonderful) Max von Sydow -- famous from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, where he played a returning noble crusader, this time cast as a stay-at-home, too old for a Crusade, the father of Robert of Loxley. Robin comes to find Loxley's house and father and, thereby, "Maid" Marion, who in this version is the Crusader-widow wife of Robin of Loxley. He married her years earlier and then went off at once to the Holy Land. Max, that is, Loxley senior, who is blind (a nice touch, especially since he dies in a sword fight), forces Robin to take on the identity of his son so the greedy new King John, or whoever else is robbing unfortunate nobles in the name of the Crown, won't seize his considerable land holdings -- 5,000 acres, Marion says -- when he's gone.

Marion is a yeomanly role for Cate Blanchett, who's seen doing some medieval plowing of those acres at first. They've fallen on hard times, been wiped out by tax collectors. Ah ha, yes! Tax collectors. Call for Robin Hood! Ridley Scott's movie does emphasize the need to protect the English from the English Crown's rapacious desire to grab land, crops, and valuables, as well as the French King's desire to grab England. But this isn't a rob-the-rich-give-to-the-poor Robin Hood -- which in fact is a later permutation of the character. Here he's just more a kind of legal advocate, a civil rights activist.

Loxley's mansion has huge rooms, but the floor is strewn with straw and the bedroom is full of dogs. Cate Blanchett does a good job considering that she's given nothing logical to do. She must alternately be down to earth, working a plow when needed; regal on horseback; so pure she threatens to neuter Robin if he touches her; then warm and womanly when things get friendly between them by and by. Good role for Cate perhaps, bad one for us to relate to in any coherent way.

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is conceived by the writers (Brian Helgeland and staff) as a prequel, with old-fashioned movie scroll captions at the outset that look like a Classics Illustrated Comic Book. A similar scroll comes in at the end to announce "The Legend Begins." Begins what, though, exactly? Russell Crowe looked pretty tired when the movie began. We're pretty tired when it ends two hours and twenty minutes later (slightly sooner at Cannes, where this was the opener). Unfortunately many of Robin Hood's pals (except Friar Tuck, who turns up later) were along from the Crusades, so they don't get the usual colorful introductions. And despite some stomping and drinking and wenching, there's not a lot of camaraderie. When you take away that and then eliminate the robbing of the rich, you take away most of the fun of the Robin Hood legend. (Except it's just about to begin.) True, there are some energetic bad guys, chief among them young King John (Oscar Isaac) and the spy, Godfrey (Mark Strong, Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes). But the lasses get short shrift, and so do the buddies. Yes, this is a grim and violent take on a once inspiring (if hokey) legend, and no amount of lovely Welsh woodland landscapes can change that. Despite a certain reliable blockbuster action momentum in its many fight and battle sequences, this Robin Hood is light on charisma and charm and is not one of the films Sir Ridley will be most fondly remembered for.

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