by Tony Dayoub
Ridley Scott's Robin Hood opens the Cannes Film Festival today (out of competition, of course). I must admit I went into its screening skeptical that I would find anything to enjoy in yet another visit to Nottingham. My favorite film critic, the estimable Glenn Kenny, often generous with praise for at least some aspect of most movies found little to like in this one (read his review here... I'll wait). That, director Scott and actor Russell Crowe's increasingly poor track record, and the fact the film gives in to the annoying trend to "reboot" a heroic tale à la Casino Royale(2006) and Batman Begins (2005) fed my doubt there would be anything redeemable left to appreciate.
Kenny is correct in assessing Robin Hood's weaknesses. Scott has always been derivative in even his most unassailable works: think of The Duellists' visual resemblance to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975); Kubrick's touch is also evident in Alien (1979); Blade Runner's version of Los Angeles surely owes a debt to Metropolis (1927); and Black Hawk Down (2001) with its undercranked, dirt encrusted battle scenes recalls Saving Private Ryan (1998). But I guess this is the first time in memory one of Scott's films wears its quotes so brazenly on its sleeve. As Kenny points out in his review, the most blatant and upsetting riffs in the film are evident in the film's climactic battle scene where Scott somehow manages to evoke Private Ryan's D-Day setpiece (despite the two respective films' vastly different period settings) while still mashing it up with the far more contemporaneous El Cid's beachfront engagement. Kenny is being far too kind in avoiding Braveheart (1995) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as other glaring influences on this epic pastiche.
The lift I'd single out as central to Scott's Robin Hood, escapes any mention in Kenny's review, though. But it's the one I found the most satisfaction in and key to making the film the pleasurable experience it turned out to be. The story that unwinds in Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982) is more popularly known here in the form of its inferior remake, Sommersby (1993). Based on a true story, it follows the reassimilation of a man into his village and marriage after returning from war. Eventually the question arises whether this man—who was away for many, many years—is really Guerre. Robin Hood may often dwell too much on overexplanation of the legendary hero's origins (this kind of thing does grow rather tedious; who cares how his band of brigands came to be nicknamed "The Merry Men," and that sort of thing?) But the method in which Robin Longstride comes to develop a bond much deeper than simple romance with the Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett) is the most engaging part of the film. If it happens to also describe how he takes on the identity of Marion's late husband, Sir Robert Loxley (a name often associated with Robin in folklore), then so be it.
The allure of the beefy Crowe's devotion to the tough but bewitching Blanchett, and her reciprocal admiration of him as the legendary archer, is the most delightful subplot in the film. This storyline is elevated, as Kenny alludes to in his post, by the presence of Max von Sydow as the real Robert's father, Sir Walter. Von Sydow may very well have played the most famous Crusader in cinema, The Seventh Seal's Antonius... no coincidence there, as Scott is in full cribbing mode. But he also provides the most innovative plot point in a movie bereft of them; it is his idea to bestow his son's identity on Robin to stave off any economic impact on Marion should Walter die; Marion could lose her lands if it's also discovered she is widowed. The feudal era acknowledgement of a woman's inequality to men is enhanced by Blanchett's performance as a fully capable equal to Robin both on the battlefield and off.
Alas it is the unevenness of the battlefield sequences which disrupt the film and the otherwise grand scale of John Mathieson's cinematography. Robin Hood works best when the camera sits back allowing one to relish the kind of epic one rarely sees anymore, with hundreds of actual horses galloping against a cast of soldiers equally as large. But when the frame is tight, and Scott repeats the same dirt-kicking-up aesthetic he's been coasting on since Gladiator (2000), the movie could lose you.
Ultimately, I quite enjoyed Robin Hood despite my initial reservations. In spite of some rather obvious derivations which almost sink the film, Robin Hood is warmly ingratiating, mostly a result of the charming romantic chemistry between its two leads.