Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

With the recent hyperbolic political rhetoric swirling above bleak economic headlines, it seems an opportune time for a Robin Hood remake, if only to place the phrase “redistribution of wealth” in its proper context.

To study the many versions of Robin Hood is to find that he’s a rather limber legend. Yes, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but the more complex issue is whether or not he’s poor himself. The myths have classified him as a peasant, a yeoman, and even a nobleman robbed of his lands while off fighting the Crusades.

Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood is a bit of all of the above. He’s an orphan who grows into a crusading archer for King Richard, only to find himself playing the part of a nobleman. He takes on that role with the instincts of a farmer, a philosopher, and a general. That’s quite a bit for one character to embody, but Crowe’s Robin Hood somehow pulls it off.

What Crowe’s Robin Hood is not is what we’ve seen before. He’s not the gleeful Erol Flynn traipsing about in tights, and he’s not the mullet-wearing Kevin Costner butchering his English accent. So many versions of the hero have appeared on film and TV that the challenge is to keep the basics of the myth without retreading old material. It’s a difficult task. When Mel Brooks devotes an entire movie parodying a character, that well may be dry.

My favorite filmed versions are the 1980s BBC series Robin of Sherwood, which took a mystical approach to Robin Hood’s origin story, and the 1976 film Robin and Marion, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the aging title characters, rekindling their romance after years apart. Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood covers both the origin story and the character’s maturity.

Crowe would seem to be poor casting at first glance. For one, he’s a bit long-in-the-tooth for a folk-hero just beginning his legendary arch. The gray is working its way into his beard and temples, and he’s more pudgy than spritely. Secondly, there’s very little joyful about Crowe. He’s a journeyman actor who never really seems to be enjoying himself on screen. Crowe has many assets, but a merry man he is not.

And yet, Crowe’s Robin somehow fits into Scott’s muddy England, where political maneuvering has overcome the common good. France is looking to take advantage of a weak King John, and the country needs a stoic, pragmatic Robin Hood more than a wisecracking ornery Robin Hood.

Scott’s film is almost more about its history than its leads. The exposition takes forever just putting all the figures and interests in play. It’s an hour into the film before Robin even reaches Nottingham, and once there he spends more time dissecting political philosophy than fighting injustice. Brian Helgeland’s screenplay has Robin drafting what looks a lot like the Magna Carte. And the climactic battle isn’t even in Sherwood Forrest but on the coast of England against a Norman invasion.

I don’t mind these broad changes because I don’t want the same old telling of Robin Hood. What I do mind is how the film shortchanges the Sherriff of Nottingham as a central villain in favor of a corrupt knight called Sir Godfrey, whose real allegiance is to France. It feels far too easy to make France the central threat. And since when did Robin Hood ever care about saving the crown from France?

But I can forgive Scott and Helgeland for their ambitious plot. Their Robin Hood has other elements going for it. First, there’s the cinematography by John Mathieson, who makes every frame of this old England look authentic. From fantastic scenery of the legendary White Horse to the castle interiors, Mathieson thoroughly transports us.

Next there’s Cate Blanchett as Lady Marion. Blanchett just looks so natural, so earthy in the role, as if she grew from the root of the tree. Her Marion is firm but tender, a powerful force who improves Crowe’s Robin. Theirs is a mature relationship, but also moving in that there is no overstatement to their romance. In fact there is little wooing but more consideration and humble respect between them. It’s so subtle that when Robin finally confesses his love for her, we feel it with Marion, as a revelation.

Hegleland nearly ruins Marion by putting her in armor for the climactic battle scene. Why do this? We’ve already seen how strong and resourceful she is. There’s no need to over-visualize how much she can fight for her land. Maid Marion could always fight, but not in the army.

Some audiences may get agitated at too much tinkering. At times the film seems to redefine Robin Hood completely. But it does a fine job at the end of resetting the legend right where he belongs. When first conceived, this project was entitled “Nottingham” and Crowe was supposed to play the sheriff sympathetically.

Imagine what political pundits would have made of that! Scott’s Robin Hood, meanwhile, can be claimed by either political side. Yes he steals from the clergy to help his community, but he also fights for the rights of landowners against the taxation of the monarchy.

And the term “monarchy” should be emphasized. Until one returns, we shouldn’t make so many contemporary parallels, and just enjoy the sword fighting.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010