Watering the Tree of Liberty
Is it an accident that Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood plays like a rousing love letter to the tea party movement? It’s certainly something of a surprise. When the movie was announced in 2007 with the title Nottingham, reports suggested that it would sympathize with the normally vilified Sheriff of Nottingham as a man torn between two extremes: the corrupt tax-happy monarchy and Robin Hood himself, who in this version would be a self-serving rabble-rouser who’d play on the emotions of the struggling public to incite anarchy. Russell Crowe was at first cast as the sheriff; a year later, Scott told MTV News that his frequent leading man would play both the famed outlaw and his lawman rival to better reveal the affinities between the two.
The film Scott ended up making is called Robin Hood, the sheriff’s role is minimal, and Crowe plays only the title character, whose ability to mobilize commoners with empty, anti-government rhetoric equating taxation with slavery is posited as a virtue. It is an old-fashioned adventure epic produced with state-of-the-art cosmetics, lined with mild romantic farce, and weighed down by overly simplistic, quasi-populist dialogue. Instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about “liberty” and the rights of the individual as he wanders a countryside populated chiefly by Englishpersons bled dry by government greed. Conservatives will never again be able to complain that Hollywood ignores their interests, but the driving agenda behind the Nottingham makeover was most likely economic: Robin Hood is, above all, a boilerplate origin story, finely engineered to set up a franchise.
As King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) and his army pillage their way back to England from the Crusades, royal younger brother John (Oscar Isaac) is shacked up with the niece of the French king. When the Queen Mum interrupts her son’s coitus to lecture him for being a foolish slut and taking up with one of the same, he announces his diabolical plan to marry the French broad and nab the throne from his aging brother. Before Mom can huff, “Something must be done about these power-mad, horny kids,” Richard is killed by Godfrey (Mark Strong), an Englishman turned secret operative for the French, whom the newly crowned, still-foolish King John unwittingly hires to violently enforce the mass taxation that will fund his royal decadence.
Who should stumble upon Richard’s corpse but Robin Longstride, a “common archer” plagued by fuzzy flashbacks of the day, a good 30 years previous, when his father “left me to the world of men.” Robert Loxley, a sidekick to the King who lays dying at the scene, presses Robin’s daddy-issues button and convinces him to take the Loxley family sword back to papa Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) in Nottingham.
The younger Loxley failed to mention that Walter lives with Marian (Cate Blanchett), the headstrong barely noblewoman Robert married on the eve of decamping for war a decade earlier. When Robin arrives in Nottingham, Walter insists that he protect both himself and what’s left of the Loxley land by play-acting as Marian’s dead husband. The second act of the film is largely taken up with the budding relationship between Robin and Marian—or, rather, the gradual process by which her proto-feminist resolve is crumbled by his general bemusement at her confidence and self-sufficiency. Just as this union is on the verge of consummation, Walter reveals the truth about Robin’s father, the landowners threaten to rise up against the royals, the French army storms . . . something, and the English king has to make political concessions to his people so that they’ll march for him instead of against him in a great, partially underwater battle in which Marian learns why chainmail generally doesn’t come in ladies’ sizes.
Much like Avatar, Robin Hood seemingly seeks to wow through assault—the soundtrack is loud and extraordinarily dense, the pace relentless, the battle scenes choreographed for total sensory disorientation, the war of the story too convoluted to keep track of without the aid of press notes—but what’s actually interesting about the construction of both movies are the moments at which technological trickery supports the classical filmmaking, rather than absorbing it. From the warm, pulsing grain of the digitally enhanced natural light to the muted blanket of sound coming off a rain of arrows, there are quietly ecstatic aesthetic flourishes buried within Robin Hood’s clutter.
But the clutter is paramount. Scott mainly filters a nearly 1,000-year-old myth through the stale shorthand of the action blockbusters of the past two decades. We travel with arrows in Matrix-esque bullet time; emotion is underlined through zooms and slo-mo; the villains have bad facial hair and/or speak in quasi-philosophical metaphor (“Even dying animals can be obstinate,” the king of France sneers, addressing the oyster he’s trying to open, but he really means England!). The directorial choices are, for the most part, so lazy, the blockbuster engineering so blatant, that Robin Hood often falls into self-parody. All the more reason for Sarah Palin to love it.
Robin Hood was directed by Ridley Scott; written by Brian Helgeland; and stars Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, Danny Huston and Oscar Isaac. Rated PG-13. Countywide.
This review appeared in print as "Ridley Scott Waters the Tree of Liberty: Robin Hood rails against the no-good tax-and-spend Nottingham elite."
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