Considering that the latest Robin Hood is an origin story, it’s ironic, I think, that leading man Russell Crowe is the oldest actor ever to portray the infamous British outlaw on film. The 46 year-old isn’t quite as robust as he used to be, especially when compared to his commanding and demanding turn in Gladiator a decade ago. But in Crowe’s defence, much of Robin Hood looks to be equally as tired. Perhaps that’s because in director Ridley Scott’s version, what was green is now grey, lively now lethargic and merry now miserable.
It’s hard to blame Scott for trying to bring a darker and grittier edge to what has previously been quite light-hearted and cheesy material; after all, it worked a treat with Batman Begins and Casino Royale. It’s just that the director has tipped the balance so far in the other direction, he’s produced a laboured and lifeless epic that feels limp at the bow.
Events take place on the verge of the 13th century — not the 12th, as the film incorrectly states – where King Richard (Danny Huston) is killed during a castle siege on his crusade through France. Royalty is therefore bestowed on his far less noble brother John (Oscar Isaac), but a King is nothing without his crown, leaving it up to Richard’s right hand man Sir Robert Loxley to return the crown safely to England. While traversing through the woods, common archer Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) and his companions — not nearly as ‘merry’ as they used to be — come across the aftermath of a deadly ambush on Sir Robert, led by a double-crossing Englishman Godfrey (Mark Strong). With Robert’s last breath, he urges Robin to return the crown to England and, more pressingly, his distinctive sword back to his father in Nottingham.
It’s in the small English village of Nottingham where the iron-willed Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett) fends off tax collectors while patiently awaiting the return of her husband, Sir Robert. When Robin arrives with the bad news, Marian’s blind father Walter (Max von Sydow) suggests he impersonate his son in order to prevent the Crown from claiming their land. Marian isn’t chuffed about sharing her room with a stranger, but it doesn’t take long for Crowe to weave his magic and court his leading lady.
To the audience, however, Crowe is easily resisted. Not only has the Aussie actor lost that twinkle in his eye, under screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s ever-busy pen (this is his third film to be released this year in Australia), Robin has lost all the charisma and wit that made him such a popular piece of folklore in the first place. I understand that this is an origin story, but that shouldn’t mean the titular character bear next to no resemblance to the man he is destined to become. Only in the last few minutes does Robin become the beloved rich taking, poor giving vigilante, a teaser for a potential sequel that looks to be far more enjoyable than the film just viewed.
Much like his last effort Green Zone, Helgeland’s screenplay is in desperate need of some George Foreman fat grilling, the 2nd act almost grinding to a halt under the weight of mountains of unnecessary and bland dialogue (seriously, if I wanted someone to talk about taxes for half an hour, I’d call my accountant). It’s here where the romance between Crowe and Blanchett is supposed to blossom, but any chemistry between the two usually reliable stars is scarcely detectable, causing their screen time together to feel less like the beginnings of a classic partnership and more like a trifling subplot.
Cinematographer John Mathieson’s colourless palate further diminishes what little passion there is, while also making it hard to distinguish who’s who during the patchy action. That said, there is a definite sense of realism to his lensing, aided by some impressively meticulous production design and a commendable absence of CGI. But the major downside of such gritty realism, especially in a film of this length and nature, is that it quickly becomes tiresome to watch. There’s only so many steely blue hues and grey skies you can stand before even the most beautiful, fully realised scenes – such as a establishing shot of a ship docking in front of the Tower of London – has the effect of a tranquilizer.
Performances are serviceable all round, no one particularly shining despite the A-list cast. The two Australians, Crowe and Blanchett, are never abysmal in their roles, but they showcase few of their usual star qualities. This is the least alluring Blanchett has been in a while. Oscar Isaac has the most fun as the egotistical King John, and bad-guy-for-hire Mark Strong does the scar-faced villain Godfrey well, largely because he’s played the very same character three times in the last six months (Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass and now Robin Hood). Max von Sydow as Marian’s father is probably the most sympathetic and amiable character, while Mark Addy as the mead loving Friar Tuck is the primary source of humour, something the film otherwise lacks.
Ultimately, and regrettably, Robin Hood feels generic. Despite having all workings of a blockbuster epic — a big name cast, distinguished director, grand visuals, sweeping score and, of course, a gallant hero — the only truly epic aspect to the film is that it’s 140 minutes far-too-long.
“Gladiator with bows and arrows” is starting to sound pretty good right about now.