This is England…
Most of us will know the story from our childhoods. The hero outlaw and his band of merry men, living outside the law as they fight against the injustices of the rich and for the rights of the common man, preyed upon by the corrupt local lawman and making their home in the leafy sanctuary of Sherwood Forest. A well-worn tale, it endures thanks to its ageless traits of morality, humanity and adventure – not to mention its enthralling central figure – and has found its way to both big and small screens many times.
But never like this.
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited film is a world away from Disney cartoons, Errol Flynn swashbucklers or Kevin Costner melodrama; there’s not a feathered cap, pair of green tights or romantic ballad in sight. It’s a visceral, down and dirty origin movie that presents Robin of the Hood, not as a character from a fairy story but from history, as an ordinary flesh and blood man who found himself in the middle of extraordinary times and acted not out of a desire for notoriety, but out of a need for survival.
Initially no more a hero than any other member of the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is an expert archer helping his king make his return to England after the crusades at the turn of the 12th Century. When Robin makes a promise to the mortally wounded Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) that he will return his family sword to his father Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow) in Nottingham, it’s a decision that is to change the course of his life – and history. Arriving at the Loxley estate, Robin finds the locals starving and desperate – a situation made worse by the crippling taxes the ambitious new king John (Oscar Isaac) is placing on landowners with the help of the villainous Godfrey (Mark Strong). With England on the verge of Civil War, and the French king planning a fortuitous invasion, Robin joins forces with the widowed Lady Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett) to win popular support, defeat the tyrants and defend the rights of the people – and become the country’s most famous outlaw in the process.
Any actor playing a character mentioned in a film’s title carries an extra weight of expectation on their shoulders, and if that character also happens to also be carved from historical legend then it could all too easily overwhelm a lesser actor. But Crowe is – wandering Irish/English hybrid accent aside – perfectly cast as Hood; showcasing both the dignity and restraint of a nobleman and the gritty, focused determination of a man embroiled in a fight for his country. And even though this role has been mooted as ‘Gladiator in Sherwood’, with a dry wit and moments of humour thrown into his performance, Crowe’s Robin is lighter and more accessible than Maximus while proving him to be a star of genuine note and versatility.
But even though he is in the thick of it, Robin Hood is not all about Crowe. Brian Helgeland’s script manages to successfully tell Robin’s story while admirably fleshing out the characters who help to shape his journey. Blanchett is wonderful as ever; her ‘Maid’ Marion is absolutely luminous, strong of will and sharp of tongue she is a heroine worthy of the name, both a sparring partner and love interest for Robin. Elsewhere, Von Sydow provides the dramatic gravitas as Walter, a man who may hold the key to Robin’s destiny, while Isaac gives a marvellous ‘boo-hiss’ performance as the woefully inadequate King John. And while the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) is relegated to a cameo here, it’s Strong who is the uber-villain, his turn as the duplicitous Godfrey is the dark heart of the story and his sinister characterisation never descends into pantomime.
The glorious cinematography from John Mathieson also takes a starring role; the visuals are crisp and vivid, painting England as a lush watercolour of rolling hills, green forests and tumbling streams – a land that, despite the poverty ravaging the countryside – is well worth fighting for. And, while the 12A rating curbs the gore, against this backdrop play out some thunderous action sequences; from the storming castle invasion that opens the film to the stirring coastline defence at its climax, it’s beautifully choreographed and authentic (if, at times, slightly repetitive).
By focusing on the historical accuracies of this oft-told tale, while also maintaining a light touch, Ridley Scott has adeptly revitalised the legend of Robin Hood with his cracking origin story. And, with its mix of action, humour and some truly great performances – not to mention its potential for further adventures – it’s an early summer blockbuster that, unlike so many of its ilk, really hits the target.
Stars Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow
Director Ridley Scott
Screenplay Brian Helgeland
Distributor Universal Pictures
Running Time 2hrs 20mins
Opens May 12
This review also appears online at movieScope magazine