Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We shall fight them in our breeches


Robin Hood (2010) Universal Pictures

Not much riding through the glen. Not a lot of being feared by the badde or loved by the goode. But band of men? Tick - in spades. More like band of brothers really. I'm talking about Robin Hood. You know - we few, we happy few, we band of brothers? Another glass of mead mon frère? Don't mind if I do.

In fact, what we have here is not so much a film but a Shakespearean company of players amidst a cast of thousands. It seems to pull every theatrical and film and television convention together in one great thundering extravaganza of, er, brown. And there's a fair bit of drinking of mead too.

It's not that I didn't enjoy Robin Hood. There is very little not to like, particularly if you are well-disposed towards brown, and white horses who can gallop from Nottingham to Dover in a couple of hours without getting dirty. It's all there. And sibilant sex-god Russell Crowe too, reprising his Gladiator haircut.

I wasn't expecting any hint of historical accuracy. Just as well because it wasn't there. It's pretty much a masterclass in how to make a Ridley Scott film. From the curiously bloodless arty battle scenes right down to the stock characters - like the mysterious cloaked enabler with the full facial scar and the weak-willed, curly-headed, black-bearded nemesis. Is Oscar Isaac the new Joaquin Phoenix? He's got that whole South American religious thing going on and he's a musician. There's going to be a Jeff Buckley bio-pic in the offing any day now. It's all so Ridley.

And oh so predictably Russell - devouring the bait laid by clever Mark Lawson from one's adored BBC who teased him over his not-quite-right accent. Russ, do you never learn?

Because it's been the only thing anyone's been talking about since the film's release, (well done Mark, ditto Russ), I listened extra hard. If he was aiming for Michael Parkinson circa 1986, it wasn't half bad, apart from a few Antipodean lapses in the vowel department. I didn't hear any Irish in it, perhaps a little Diaspora Irish and a bit of Scottish as well. It's all moot anyway as they probably would have been speaking Old English, or French. But French was the language of the baddies. It would only have caused confusion if the goodies had been speaking Old English because then the baddies would have to have been speaking Medieval French and the whole thing would have needed to be subtitled. Now that would have just been silly.

For Gladiator, Crowe chose to read Maximus as, by his own definition, 'Royal Shakespeare Company after three pints at lunch' and that worked reasonably well. His delivery here is no worse. The whole idea of there being an 'authentic' way to do it is nonsense. Besides, there is so little dialogue that it's difficult to see how it could possibly be important. And why would you need dialogue when you have Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, dual masters of the full-gamut-of-emotions close-up? These seem to take up half the film.

One reviewer said he found the story confusing. It relies unusually heavily on prior knowledge of the Robin Hood sagas that went before, and a whole lot of other tales and tellings as well. You need to have seen the old Richard Greene television series and The Lion in Winter, and read Ivanhoe and it would certainly help if you'd seen Ridley Scott's other films and Saving Private Ryan. And some history does come in handy if you fancy spending the long minutes occasioned by the expressive aforementioned close-ups colouring in the narrative blanks. There is almost more shorthand in this film than first-hand extrapolation.

An understanding of why the Plantagenets were so vicious and scheming could only be enhanced by having read Antonia Fraser's The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England and John Gillingham's Richard The Lionheart and The Angevin Empire. And perhaps a little bit of bog-standard classroom history circa the 1960s might have been helpful as well.

Whereas Robin Hood wasn't a real person, William Marshall, the 1st Earl of Pembroke certainly was. And he is played admirably by an unrecognisable, (in a good way), William Hurt. His accent is faultless, in that it doesn't sound like he is trying to do an accent. The real William Marshall's influence on the House of Angevin and on King John in particular, was crucial in the King finally agreeing to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. That he reneged shortly afterwards is proof only of the resilience of Plantagenet treachery. It's a wonder Britain survived really.

Maybe one of the reasons it has prospered culturally is the strength of its stories, and that is something Ridley Scott clearly relies on here. He might have spent a little less time on the battle scenes at the beginning of the film. The truth would have served his story better. To wit, Richard the Lionheart pointlessly laid siege to the erratically defended Château de Chalus-Chabrol and died (not there and then mind) through his own recklessness and carelessness thanks to a stray arrow from a sniper.

If I have a criticism it's that we have one baddie too many here. Scott relies too much on an assumed internalising of the character of the Sheriff of Nottingham from an earlier era, which may well be confused by Keith Allen's more recent interpretation. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, Richard Greene as Robin invariably outwits and outclasses Alan Wheatley's Sheriff for both riches and the love of the Lady Marian. It's hard to see what Matthew Macfadyen's role is meant to accomplish here, unless it's purely a set-up for the next episode.

The other thing - and it's maybe not a criticism because I actually feel quite flattered to see a film for once that assumes I may be more than a little literate - that climactic scene on the beach, which absolutely didn't happen in real life, is just a little bit too D-Day a la Saving Private Ryan. That said, I thoroughly approve of Cate Blanchett turning up with all those orphans. I imagine she's got a standard contract clause these days specifying no battle climax without her appearing in full sword-wielding mode and kissing the hero mid-skirmish.

The judgement of Pants : It's a film that passes pleasantly and quickly, especially if you like brown. And/or Russell Crowe. The sniff of sequel - although if this is prequel.. hey, but that's movies - is unmistakable.