Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Robin Hood

Russell Crowe glowers; Ridley Scott directs; light shines through the boughs; Marc Streitenfeld’s ethereal score conjures up memories of a certain Hans Zimmer/Lisa Gerrard collaboration…

The comparisons between Robin Hood and its forebearer, the trendsetting Gladiator, are however as off the mark as they are inevitable. Yes, Scott knows how to shoot a historical battle better than anyone, Crowe gets to do the macho chest-bashing yet soulful act that has marked his best roles, and the production boasts a typically awesome attention to detail. But the devil’s in the details: Robin Hood is a far more intelligent, plot driven beast than the po-faced marketing and posters make out. Maybe even more so than Gladiator itself…

But then, with LA Confidential writer Brian Helgeland on script duties, this was surely a pre-requisite, although, given the film’s notoriously difficult production history, how much of his work ended up on-screen is debatable. Both his and Scott’s delight in weaving potent mythology (there’s no point in denying the tale's romanticized nature, regardless of whether it's true) with a plausible kind of historical fiction (likewise, it’s a bit rich to call it historical fact per se), is plain to see, although it slavishly adheres to the currently in-vogue trend of ‘origin stories’, finishing where others would start. Kevin Costner would be a mere glint in Alan Rickman’s malicious eye at this stage.

The pleasingly multi-stranded narrative traverses both sides of the Channel. Robin Longstride (Crowe), a lowly archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart, witnesses his conquering ruler being cut down with an arrow at the end of the Crusades. Racing to return the crown to England and name petulant womanizer Prince John (Oscar Isaac) as king along with his merry men, Longstride is also charged with returning a sword to the Loxley family of Nottingham, presided over by Marion (Cate Blanchett) and Walter (Max von Sydow), struggling to live off the land under tax incursions. In the midst of all this is Mark Strong’s ambivalent, ahead-of-his-time double agent, plotting with the French for nefarious purposes…

Those expecting the pop thrills and frequent, gory battles of Gladiator will be disappointed; in comparison with the bewitching dovetail of fiction and (almost) fact, Scott clearly sees these as small fry, leaving them, in their arrow laden, thrilling glory, to the start and end of the film. There’s also a kind of gripping comparison to be made with Crowe’s Robin, a lowlier character than Maximus Decimus who doesn’t embrace destiny but more or less collides with it, suffering under a dodgy accent sounding like Scunthorpe by way of Swansea. Elsewhere, Isaac’s campy John is certainly a stoop to Hollywood villainy but puts a face on an overlooked ruler while Strong is no mere villain, bewildering a French soldier at one stage with his divided loyalties.

Throughout, there’s a constantly fascinating series of ‘what if’ scenarios where history and myth blur together. One especially wonderful aerial shot picks out the Tower of London alongside a forested River Thames; the next moment, an unexpected bit of character driven spite will accidentally set in motion the later, more romanticized events of the Hood legend we know and love today. It’s also a funnier film than the largely snotty reviews have given it credit for, with the trio of merry men (Scott Grimes; Kevin Durand; Alan Doyle) and Crowe’s light chemistry with a typically earthy Blanchett offering pleasant, naturalistic asides.

It doesn’t beat the 1973 Disney version, though.