13 May 2010

A Plot In Notts

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.
Sir Ridley Scott may seem to some an unusual choice to reinvent Robin Hood, and such fears would be borne out when watching the film, as the man obviously wanted to make a film about the Magna Carta. As it is, we find Scott's Robin Hood, played by Russell Crowe, returning to England from the immensely wasteful and decade-spanning Crusades in Jerusalem. King Richard is dead, so there's none of that Sean Connery-presiding-over-weddings bollocks here. His brother John becomes the new King, and promptly surrounds himself with mates, including the treacherous Sir Godfrey. Robin, posing as a deceased Nottingham noble, must stave off a French invasion and seek liberty by law for the people of his oppressed homeland.

And liberty by law is where the Magna Carta figures into proceedings. Although I can't fault Sir Ridley for taking the myth back to its historical roots by putting the myth into the actual historical setting of the time, this has inevitably led to the film being sold as revealing "the truth behind the legend" of Robin Hood. It's a heavy-handed approach that has previously sunk historical epics like these, and one that sadly suits the 140-minute odyssey created by Scott right down to the bone.

The whole thing could stand to be around 50 minutes shorter, and it would be if it didn't have the task of establishing Robin and the cast of characters we associate with him. There's Allan A Dale and Will Scarlett and Little John and Friar Tuck and a menagerie of supporting characters that furnish the legend rather than drive the plot forwards. So much time in that middle hour is dedicated to Friar Tuck and his bee-keeping, or the umpteenth scene of Robin's men making merry (but don't use that name) while actual plot points loom seemingly off-camera, making very slow progress from the momentum we see them build in early scenes. It's like we're not trusted to believe this is Robin Hood without those characters.
I must say that the plus side of this laboured development is Cate Blanchett as Marian Loxley. She's the widow of the noble Robin poses as throughout, and she's not best pleased. Blanchett is downright excellent in the role, making for a fiercely intelligent and resourceful female character in a patriarchal society. Scott avoids the Keira Knightley brand of historical female empowerment for all but the last half hour, when he walks the film face-first into that brick wall of character development by suiting up Marian in armour. Alas.

As our hero, Russell Crowe isn't too bad, lending the role a bit of gravitas where previously there's been a tendency to cast the character much younger, as in the case of Kevin Costner and more recently Jonas Armstrong, more of whom later. His accent meanders the length and breadth of the British Isles from its intended Yorkshire origins, and questions of his suitability for the role often guide the film into the same territory as Tim Burton's collaborations with Johnny Depp. Scott and Crowe take themselves much more seriously than either of those, and so the whole thing is rather dull.

Such is the focus on attention to detail and world-building that the film forgets to install a proper villain. I can applaud the decision to largely sidestep Matthew McFadyen's Sheriff of Nottingham as an antagonist, even though that performance is fine for all we see of it, and doesn't try to ape the gold standard of hammy villainy in Alan Rickman's portrayal.

However, Mark Strong is good but nearly ancillary as Sir Godfrey, so scant is his screen time. For a little while it looks like King John, played nicely by Oscar Isaac, might be the villain, but he has an about face when the stakes raise. So the de facto villain is France. Yeah, just France, all of it. Did you know this film's opening the Cannes Film Festival this week? It's going to go down a storm, I'm sure.
The imbalance of plot elements with historical accuracy leaves the story knotted beyond comprehension, and so the film's length largely goes towards didactically going through the motions of every little event. There's a leaner film hiding somewhere in Robin Hood, but this one has a massive lull running right through its heart, which makes it near irredeemable.

Maybe it's a matter of personal preference, but I much prefer Scott's work in other genres to his more lauded historical actioners. Gladiator verges on being overrated despite actually being rather good, and his follow-ups here and in Kingdom of Heaven can't match the immutable game-changing appeal of films like Alien, Blade Runner or Thelma and Louise.

And the truth is that its May 14th release date is an anomaly of Hollywood scheduling. It doesn't feel like it belongs as a summer blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination. Instead its muted palette and sombre storytelling would feel more at home in the autumn or winter, and it feels as though it's only out now to maximise box office returns.

It all just put me in mind of the recent BBC adaptation of the story. Some of its attempts to upgrade the series with political context were clumsy and juvenile, but its heart was in the right place, and it reinvented certain aspects with more nous than Scott's version- Friar Tuck, for instance. But it suffered from being stretched too thin in an attempt to replicate the 13-episode runs of the Doctor Who revival, and the film is similarly stretched, but at least over the course of the three series, the TV version came to a satisfying conclusion.
Robin Hood is a lot less risible and a lot more masculine than the Kevin Costner-starring interpretation that everyone loved in the 90s, but it's also lost a lot of the fun of that version too. Now I can deal with a Robin Hood that isn't fun, but is it too much to ask that it's interesting? An excellent performance from Cate Blanchett is the only thing to rave about here, and even when the action scenes kick off in the last act they feel uninspired after the drudgery of the previous hour. It's not badly made at all, just edited with extreme indulgence.

Going for the Robin Hood Begins approach counteracts the slower parts of the plot, but also builds up for a sequel rather than focusing on entertaining the audience. Proof if proof were needed comes in a final title card, proclaiming "And so the legend begins" before the credits. The trouble is, Scott's slate is so full of Alien prequels and board game adaptations (no, he really IS making Monopoly) that I can't imagine him getting to a sequel. But then nor will I be enormously sorry if he doesn't find the time.
Robin Hood is currently playing in cinemas nationwide. If you've seen the film, why not share your comments below? But if you want to protest at how you reckon Mark Addy as a bumbling fat beekeeper is better than David Harewood as a wise and invaluable warrior monk, then you can Tuck right off.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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