Saturday 15 May 2010

Reading through the glen: On "Robin Hood"

In one of its earliest gestations, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood project was called Nottingham, and was all set to feature Russell Crowe in a dual role as both the fabled outlaw and the Sheriff of Nottingham - a bold conceit that might just have offered a historical take on the yin-yang crime-and-punishment games of Michael Mann's Heat.

Presumably it was the moneymen who nixed Nottingham as too conceptual for a planned summer-season release; yet while the stolidly traditional Robin Hood thankfully shies well clear of synergistic Bryan Adams songs, it could badly do with something extra: a little more Errol Flynn zip or Alan Rickman nostril, maybe, or some of the mischief either Dick (Robin and Marian) Lester or Tony (Maid Marian and Her Merry Men) Robinson brought to their own Sherwood Forests. In its ideal state, Robin Hood exists as a series of bulging ring binders lining the shelves of the Scott production office; everything it does, it does for the record.

We're back in 1199, and Robin Longstride (Crowe), an archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart, is at the forefront of an assault on another French castle; the booty successfully plundered, our hero ends up in the stocks for voicing concerns as to the holy mission they've been engaged on. (What a zeitgeisty script conference it must have been that day.) Cut to: the Tower of London, where King John (Oscar Isaac) is plundering some French booty of his own, having shut his good wife out of the marital bedchamber to romp with a pouting Gallic princess (Lea Seydoux). The battlelines are thus apparently drawn: where our Robin is all barrack-tent bonhomie and loyalty to his boys, John is licentious, dubiously patriotic, and oddly prone to walking round butt-naked in front of his own mother.

It's to the credit of Brian Helgeland's screenplay that the film never quite gives into this mainstream Manicheanism: it turns away from the antagonism between Robin and the authorities (Matthew Macfadyen's Sheriff is reduced to the standing of a bit player, waiting around helplessly on the sidelines even as his house is razed to the ground) in favour of a study of shifting allegiances (Robin and John end up fighting on the same side). Again, as has so often been the case in Scott's recent output, the film's real subject is power-broking, the sort of social interaction a producer-director might understand better than most.

Scott, once more, devotes himself to the logistics of the thing, getting to do with catapults and battering rams what his Body of Lies did with cellphones and satellites. Casting the never-smiling Cate Blanchett as a more womanly Marian than has previously been filmed - the widow of one of Robin's comrades-in-arms, she's obliged to do all her farm's milking and mucking-out herself - reveals the extent of the film's determination to get things right, or at least vaguely accurate: somewhere in the background of every scene, each encounter, lies a hundred or more hours of research into such topics as the precise components of 12th century mead, the kind of bawdy songs an itinerant soldier might trill, and the correct temperature of tar to toss off a castle's ramparts onto marauders below.

Somewhere closer to the foreground, alas, sits a nagging tone of pedantry: this is Sealed Knot filmmaking, never too far away from a flagon of Real Ale and the warm, wafting fuzz of masculine body odour. Scott has been down this route before, in 2005's Crusader chore Kingdom of Heaven, and we may yet get an even longer director's cut of Robin Hood on DVD; for Crowe, who extends to the title role his now-customary jovial approachability, it's something of a return to the meticulous period recreation of Peter Weir's Master and Commander. Here, though, all the fascination resides off-screen: in the history books Scott, Helgeland and Crowe must have devoured in pre-production, rather than the camera's passage through new and undiscovered worlds.

For a film notionally striking the sparks of rebellion, Robin Hood feels terribly pre-ordained, lacking in either spontaneity or the rabble-rousing this actor-director combo got up to in Gladiator a decade ago now. We get nondescript Merry Men, their roles downgraded in this telling to tagalong footnotes; as the King, the shouty and beardy Isaac mostly suggests Rufus Sewell was busy; and there's a token role for Max von Sydow - The Seventh Seal's knight errant - as Marian's shambling father. When a major studio release invokes Bergman in this fashion, you can be sure it's aiming for seriousness of a sort, but Robin Hood is so determined not to take any liberties or shortcuts through its chosen forest that it comes to seem entrenched and reactionary in its outlook: a movie desperate to avoid those anoraks who so delighted into pointing out the historical and geographic gaffes in 1991's character-defining Prince of Thieves.

Scott - baseball cap pulled on tight, cigar clamped between his teeth, like any other military commander of yore - knows exactly where we are, as the authentic period maps dividing up the action are so keen to demonstrate; when he turns his attention to the bigger picture, as in the pitched coastal battles of the final half-hour, his film achieves a rare combination of scale and integrity. Yet as we enter blockbuster season, I don't think it's too much to want to see more action and less working. I arrived at Robin Hood wanting to see the arrows fly, but this most grounded of event movies - an object lesson in the dangers that can follow with printing the truth over the legend - feels overly preoccupied with sourcing the correct bark and flints.

Robin Hood is on general release.

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