(dir. Scott, wr. Helgeland)
You can see what Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe were trying to do. It’s just a pity that, in trying to be less merry than mediaeval, less cartoony than Costner, less archaic than accessible, they forgot to make a film about Robin Hood. Which, in a film called Robin Hood, is unfortunate.
The film screams sequel: to be more precise it’s a prequel before the original, a back-story before there’s even a story. It sets up a credible Robin, and one for whom Russell Crowe is just right: the veteran archer, bold but world-weary, plebby but dignified, sneaky but wise. It sets the promising political context: insecure shifty Prince John (Oscar Isaac enjoying himself) and his marginalized counsellors – bit of gravity from Eileen Atkins and William Hurt – and the amusingly oily Sheriff. The brief introductions we get to the merrie men, especially Friar Tuck with his bees, leave us wanting more. And the young outlaws in the forest, mud-daubed, mysterious and ever-watching, are the most powerful thing in the film.
We want more, but we don’t get it; because this film isn’t about any of that.
In the attempt to avoid being silly in the cartoony way, in ends up being silly (and a bit less fun) in the Russell-invents-the-Magna-Carta way. And then in the Russell-rides-surprisingly-quickly-from-the-geographic-centre-of-England-to-the-coast-to-face-a-French-invasion way. Mark Strong makes a fine villain as ever, but the focus shifts too much between baddies: Mark Strong? the King? the French? the principle of divine right monarchy? In the anxiety not to let Matthew Macfadyen pull an Alan Rickman, the Sheriff of Nottingham is briefly established and then disappears almost entirely. Having created a powerfully dark version of the outlaws in the forest, the film dumps it in favour of some chirpy urchin surrogate children for Robin and Marion. And it still finds time for more fireside wassailing and general mediaeval carousery than anyone needs.
The script’s a bit daft at the plot level – think Michael Palin’s remarkably articulate oppressed peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – and intermittently a bit daft at the line level. Most obviously, the critical motto that Robin finds concealed on a sword hilt and that triggers an Unfortunate Memory – ‘Rise and Rise Again, Until Lambs Become Lions’ – is really two slightly feeble mottos that together become very feeble, less than the sum of their parts.
Cate Blanchett is class, of course. The accent occasionally makes 13th century rural life sound like an episode of Corrie, but in headscarf and agricultural mode she looks like something out of a Dutch master painting, and she adds real gravity to the social history and to the relationship with Robin. These really seem like two adults rediscovering affection in a hard world, and their scenes are among the subtler and stronger in the film. Unfortunately – and presumably because you couldn’t get Cate Blanchett in without giving her a fair bit to do – she also gets a rather random country-going-to-dogs pre-credit sequence, a ludicrous cameo in the big battle, and a hilariously naff bit of voice-over to end the film. For the woman who showed in Elizabeth what happens when top performer meets skilful stylish historical script, it must have taken some swallowing.
The filming is muscular and often beautiful: Scott gives good battle, and even incidental glimpses of action – departures, night-infiltrations – have vision and power. Many ingredients for a good film, but unfortunately they’re mostly focused on a follow-up that’ll never be made.