As the cinematic revision of our history goes, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood descended upon Robin Hood – a tale ripe for the retelling after Kevin Costner’s mullet bobbed unsavourily on to our screens in 1991.
This incarnation of Robin Hood is very much an origin story, a 12th Century Batman Begins. Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is a soldier in King Richard’s Crusades, an archer whose only flaw seems to be his ineffable honesty (“honest, brave and naïve, there’s an Englishman” quips Danny Huston’s King Richard).
When the King and his aide Robert Loxley are killed, it falls to Robin to return the crown to England. There, compelled to pose as Loxley himself, Robin becomes embroiled in a fight for the people of Nottingham as the nefarious King John taxes his subjects into submission and an invasion force of French troops masses on the south coast, masterminded by the traitorous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong).
It’s a decidedly more grown up tale, shorn of the cheesy trappings which plague previous representations of Britain’s best known archer. The film does very well to reinvent Robin as a plausible character – not a kind of 12th century superhero, but one anchored in reality whose tale becomes legend through the telling. To that end, the film has admirable restraint when it comes to showing Robin’s legendary archery skills – he’s made out to be more than competent without resorting to ostentatious displays that would put Legolas to shame.
The pace is deliberately slow but somewhat necessary for an origin story in order to flesh out the characters and also have something for them to do, but the battle scenes are few and far between – it’s certainly not the action dust up that was implied from the trailers.
And for a film which has as a central concept the immorality of ruling by divine right (a claim which King John holds), it’s awfully keen to give Robin’s lineage legitimacy by revealing that his father was a notable stonemason and…wrote the Magna Carta.
It’s the most ridiculous piece of revisionist history since Mel Gibson decided that William Wallace sired the future Kings of England and has no bearing on Robin’s already established character. What next, Sherlock Holmes invented pasteurisation and Francis Drake was the first person to sail to the moon?
Cate Blanchett is reliably excellent as Lady Marion – now reinvented as a working lady of the house and not a fawning wimple-wearing ingénue to be rescued from a pointy tower and she offers some dry humour which breaks up Crowe’s glumness.
But all the best lines go to King John, a decadent weasel of a man out for what he can get. Like all good villains, you almost feel guilty for smiling when you should be booing. Mark Strong continues his role as everyone’s favourite villain for hire, a menacing and uncompromising bad guy with some excellent lines of his own (“You’re English?” “When it suits me”.)
It’s still difficult shake off the feeling that this is Gladiator with bows (strap on some armour and he could easily be mistaken for Maximus – albeit with a ropier accent) with a little dash of Braveheart (Crowe painting his face blue and shouting “Freedom!” wouldn’t have been hugely out of place.)
Whilst Robin Hood valiantly plays against type for the most part, it’s unable to resist a cherry-on-top trite ending which will clearly sets up an inevitable sequel. Still, it’s nice to see a film where the English are the good guys for once and Bryan Adams is nowhere near the soundtrack; it almost brings a little tear to the eye.