*Review by guest Babbler Morris Barrier*
When I think of sprawling epic films no director still living comes to mind. I think of David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) and although Ridley Scott is not a creator of epic films in terms of length his body of work is incredibly vast and often visually stunning. From Alien, the re-invention of sci-fi horror to the stylish Blade Runner to the near-epic Gladiator, Scott delivers consistent results so much so that even his worst films are better than most directors’ mediocre films. Along with a veteran of many of his films, Russell Crowe (Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster), he takes on Robin Hood. Don’t go looking for any Brian Adams love themes, because you won’t find it in this almost overly serious update. In fact, the characters rarely crack a smile and if their names and this film had been named something other than Robin Hood you scarcely would have recognized it. Don’t let that prevent you from watching. Just know that it’s a prequel, and a gritty one at that.
The film begins at a seminal moment in England toward the end of the 13th century, with King Richard just finishing his crusades in the Middle East and now at war with France. Godfrey (Mark Strong) has divided loyalties and devises a plot with the French to assassinate the King, handing power to his indulgent, inexperienced brother, Prince John. The French involvement has to do with retaliation once the naive new king rules England in its weakened state. The king dies in battle instead, leading to desertion by the war-wearied soldiers. Crowe actually plays Robin Longstride and for reasons I won’t get into he ends up assuming the identity of the fallen Robert Loxley of Nottingham as a means to get back to England. Passage to England him and his merry men has its price, however and he must first deliver the king’s crown to the queen, followed by a trip to Nottingham to deliver a sword to Loxley’s ailing father. The story takes form here when he meets Friar Tuck and a very dour Marion (Cate Blanchett), whose lives have been destroyed by the corrupt sheriff and a heavy tax burden. King John learns of the plot and now he must gain the loyalty of those he carelessly ruled (more on how he does this in a moment). All of this culminates in a French invasion that looks strikingly like D Day in reverse led, of course, by Robin Hood and his merry men.
The moody photography is scrumptious and fitting but it’s the production design by veteran Arthur Max and the costumes that caught my eye in this film. I loved watching Marion thaw as she was forced to spend her days with Robin Hood. It’s a great picture of how the little things are often the big thing in a relationship. To me, it was effective enough to put it in almost “chick flick” territory. At this point in the review you may be wondering what happened to the jolly Robin Hood story we expect, with arrows, robbing from the rich and what not. Again, it’s a prequel so you won’t find it but there is a decisive moment where Robin Longstride transitions near the end of the film (or perhaps in the final frame of the film). Earlier on, King John buys the loyalty of commoners to go to war by promising sign a charter, a great charter if you will, that limits the power of the King and extends liberty to the people. Without spilling the beans I’ll just say that King John does something regarding this great charter that is such a vile affront to freedom lovers around the world that in my eyes it makes the movie worth the price of admission. Some will call it hokey but I’d call it an unconventional plot device by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential). This all occurs to solidify the concept of Robin Hood in the simplest of terms. People will not stand for heavy taxation for a sustained period of time by a corrupt government. Eventually the brave will rise up and make a difference. The parallels of our situation today are difficult to avoid. Be it leaders who take us on extended war campaigns or leaders who tax and cheat, a good film has to tie in to current realities and can do so without being offensive, which Robin Hood succeeds at. After all, it’s a summer movie!
Thanks Morris, looking forward to future babbles from you!