Ridley and Russell gave us a sword-and-toga spectacle a decade ago with Gladiator; now they’ve come up with a bow-and-tabard epic – but though there’s much to enjoy in their Robin Hood, the film is unlikely to snatch equal box-office spoils or rouse the same passions as its stirring predecessor.
The pair’s take on the Robin Hood story is very much a revisionist one: Russell Crowe’s gritty Robin Hood couldn’t be further from the merry outlaw of legend – and he’s a long way from Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling hero or even Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves. You won’t find much riding through the glen here.
Instead, the film belongs to that increasingly popular genre – the origins tale. This is Robin Hood before he became a myth.
Crowe’s hero isn’t the dispossessed nobleman of most other versions. When the film begins, his Robin Longstride is a humble archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), a veteran of years fighting in the Holy Land and of countless battles across Europe on the way home.
Deserting the army in France with a handful of fellow bowmen, however, Robin takes on the guise of a dead knight, Sir Robert Loxley, and makes his way back to an England that’s gone to wrack and ruin thanks to its rulers’ preoccupation with foreign wars (sound familiar?).
The country is bankrupt (ah, ha) and Richard’s weaselly younger brother Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is planning to gouge the populace with swingeing taxes (uh, oh).
Robin, though, is a man ahead of his time. He doesn’t do a great deal of robbing the rich to give to the poor, but he does stick up for the rights of the common man, all but drafting the Magna Carta and forging a coalition with the realm’s disgruntled barons. If that wasn’t enough, he enjoys a slow-burning romance with the dead knight’s widow, Cate Blanchett’s strong-willed Marion, foils the wicked plots of Mark Strong’s double-dealing villain Sir Godfrey and repels an invasion by the dastardly French.
That’s a lot of plot to squeeze into the movie, even if it does run for 140 minutes. In consequence, there’s much less action than you might expect, though Scott does frame the narrative with rousing battle sequences at the beginning and end.
As you’d expect, he stages the fighting with brute proficiency, but in storytelling terms the climactic battle is ludicrous, as director and screenwriter (LA Confidential’s Brian Helgeland) bust a gut to thrust all the film’s leading players into the thick of the action.
The film’s botched climax is a shame, as up until then Scott and Helgeland’s approach has thrown up all manner of thought-provoking ideas and angles on the legend. Yes, the film is slow moving and sometimes dour (Matthew Macfadyen’s ineffectual Sheriff of Nottingham supplies a few moments of humour yet otherwise barely gets a look in), but Crowe is forceful, Blanchett commanding and the English landscapes stunning.
Indeed, there are fleeting moments when Scott’s camera captures some of the mystery and magic of the greenwood, catches sunlight and shadows and glancing figures flitting through the trees – and you glimpse the enduring potency of the Robin Hood myth.
On general release.