Now here’s a full-bodied, hot-blooded, expertly crafted action movie from a director that, much like Martin Scorsese, has recently taken up shop in the realm of the genre film, much to the delight of themselves and much to the dislike of nostalgic critics and cinephiles. Maybe it’s overstating it a bit in Scorsese’s case, as many of his 21st Century films have been highly lauded and beloved, but for the fans who erected Ridley Scott as the second-coming of Kubrick with his Alien and Blade Runner, their distaste for his recent output is much more caustic. However, Scott’s talent as a superior pictorial, cinematographic and design artist is in as full effect here as it was in any of his masterpieces. The biggest difference is his shift in focus from tone, atmosphere and science-fiction inspired themes to more classic, plot-driven films.
Scott’s Robin Hood begins before the classic legend itself in 1199 where Robin Longstride (Russel Crowe) is an archer in Richard I’s Crusades. After Richard is killed in battle, Robin joins up with Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle; the similarity in name is a remarkable coincidence), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes) and Little John (Kevin Durand). Robin pretends to be Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) as he carries the crown of Richard home to England where King John (Oscar Isaac), the brother of Richard I, now takes over as king. John is ruthless and begins immediately demanding taxes be collected from the already impoverished kingdom, and his plans fall into the hands of Sir Godfrey, an English Knight with allegiance to France who is plotting against England. When Robin arrives in Nottingham he meets the wife of the real Robert Loxley, Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett) and her blind father-in-law, Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), whom he quickly befriends, and Robin’s band of friends defend Nottingham from the ruthlessness of King John.
As the plot synopsis proves, the plot of the film is quite vast, encompassing an immense cast and a tremendous amount of plot-happenings that add up to the film’s 2 ½ hour runtime. In terms of breadth, the film is reminiscent of the history plays of Shakespeare with their juxtapositions of life at court, life of the peasantry, war and all the scheming, kinship, humor and drama that go along with such a diverse sampling of human life. For most, the comparisons would end there, and I certainly won’t compare the depth, humanity and poignancy, nor the dramatic form or characterizations of Shakespeare to Robin Hood. These relative failings have largely been the focus of the negative reviews leveled at it, frequently concluding that this is nothing but yet another empty-headed epic. Yet I think these criticisms have missed the heart of the film, which lies in its pristine, neo-classical craftsmanship.
Scott hasn’t lost his talent for creating meticulously crafted worlds where no detail is too small to overlook. Despite the fact that the production designer, Arthur Max, has already been with Scott for six films, the film is unmistakably a product of Ridley’s creative imagination. The world is certainly more familiar than the future worlds of Blade Runner and Alien, but for discriminating viewers it’s clear that the film is head-and-shoulders above most period films. The opening battle scene for instance was filmed near the ruins of an English castle in which the production team had to construct nearly an entirely new edifice to fill in what was missing. This is almost an antiquated methodology today where most would simply fill in what’s missing with CGI rather than physically build it. The tangibility of the sets and designs, from the smallest to the largest, gives the film a refreshing authenticity.
If the production exemplifies the craftmanship, then Ridley’s cinematography exemplifies the artistry. One element on continuous display is Ridley’s masterful orchestration of light and pictorial textures. The film has some stunning images that hearken all the way back to The Duellists, which may still be Ridley’s greatest triumph from a cinematographic perspective. In Robin Hood it manifests in the light which hazily streams in through windows, creating long, angular shadows for the interiors. Firelight frequently serves to highlight the ominousness of the night scenes with their deep, seething blacks. Exterior night scenes are another matter; here, Ridley frequently uses sharp contrasts between the deep blues of the sky left from the setting sun and the blackness of the forests and terrains. Elsewhere, he uses the subtle tinges of colors (like the greens of the forest) for dramatic effect when another is introduced (like the blood from the battle).
There are few directors today that get more evocation out of their long shots than Scott does, but perhaps what keeps most from recognizing and appreciating it is that Ridley has taken to overcrowding the images with his editing, which still may be the director’s kryptonite; no sooner does a painterly image appear than it disappears. Even since Blade Runner, Ridley has seemed uneasy with the editing process, and has taken to releasing more versions of his films than any director I know. Even the Robin Hood Blu-ray comes with “theatrical” and “director’s” cuts. The effect in the film is a sense that its vision and direction are unsure and unsettled. There’s a kind of pervasive confusion that’s difficult to pin down to anything other than how the film has been put together in post-production. Perhaps some of this is due to the sprawling narrative, but I can recall equally complex stories that are made remarkably simple through the editing (Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a recent example).
Perhaps what should be taken from this is the danger of sensory overload. In Ridley’s quest to trade tone for narrative momentum he’s adopted the intensified continuity of modern Hollywood action film-making. It’s really a technique that goes back to Eisenstein’s theories that faster cutting equaled more drama. What most today miss are the correlative theories surrounding it, and what’s been excised is everything that made it so effective. Eisenstein built his editing up by degrees, so that when he unsheathed his rapid montages each cut struck like a lightning bolt. The greatest flaw with modern films is that they ignore context, feeling that fast-cutting close-ups in a quiet, character building scene is just as tenable as doing it during an action scene. What results are films that are overloaded and sink under the weight of their shot numbers.
If Robin Hood is salvaged (and I feel it very much is), it’s because of the charismatic cast and their ability to endear the rather superficial characters to us. Russell Crowe has become the archetypal man’s man action hero, and it’s refreshing to have a genuinely masculine version of Robin Hood (who, even according to Blanchett, have often been too effeminate). Crowe plays Robin as more of a conscientious rebel, not entirely selfish but not overbearingly altruistic. As good as he is, Blanchett outdoes him. Hers is the finest Marion on screen, creating an indomitably strong feminist (in the best sense of the term) who’s every bit Robin’s equal. It helps that Blanchett doesn’t bring that artificial, starlet “beauty” to the role, instead creating a thoroughly earthy performance of a character who genuinely is part of the impoverished kingdom.
As Ebert recently said of Michael Caine, Sydow is an actor whom one only needs to see on screen and we instantly know he’s wiser than everyone else involved. But he doesn’t play Sir Walter as a blind sage, more as a world-wearied, yet still very optimistic and clever man capable of taking Robin in as a surrogate son to pretend to be his real son (so when he dies, Marion would inherit his possessions). His scenes with Crowe are some of the most affectionate in the film, and between the three principles they make the domestic scenes arguably superior to anything else in the film. In contrast, the scheming king’s court feels much more clichéd and superficial, with Mark Strong’s Godfrey and Oscar Isaac’s John falling too neatly into the villainous, antagonist role, though at least Isaac gets a few equivocal moments when he’s forced to reveal his cowardliness amongst his bravado.
I’ve also heard some “hrumphs!” about the lack of historical accuracy, and I guess this is a time where I’ll gladly remain ignorant of one aspect so as not to let it interfere with my enjoyment of the rest. I’ve always felt that looking for historical accuracies in films that just use history as a backdrop rather than the focus was a bit like looking for logical exactitude in a stand-up comedy routine. The best of the film is found in its art design, cinematography and performances, and even though it’s incoherently edited, it’s not bad enough to ruin the entire work. The heart of Scott’s Robin Hood is an action epic played out on a Sistine Chapel-sized canvas. Despite the ostensible similarity of many modern Blockbusters that feign towards epics, Robin Hood earns it by building from the microcosmic out, rather than just presenting a macrocosm that goes no deeper than if Michelangelo had just thrown buckets of paint on a ceiling.