Robin of No-Good
One of the things you occasionally hear people suggesting, when it comes to films, is that some of the famous old stories that have generally proven to be bankers time and time again – you know the sort of thing: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, King Arthur – seem to have fallen out of favour, at least slightly. It's not that they always flop, goes the theory, but they're seldom world-conquering smash hits any more.
Nevertheless, people still keep making films based on these stories, even if it is the result of some sort of reflex action: we've had two big-budget Sherlock Holmes so far this century, with another on the way (even if it is a spoof); a rather poor Dracula a few years ago; and two King Arthur films since 2004 (the Clive Owen version, which suggested the famous king was a Romano-British soldier, and the Charlie Hunnam one, which presented him as a kung-fu fighting London gangster superhero). And now we are on our second Robin Hood film in not much than eight years (the last one being the Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott collaboration which seemed to get considerably less interesting between the time it was announced and its actual release).
The new film is (once again) Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Now, I am generally well-disposed to an adventure movie in the classic style, even if the story is somewhat well-worn. However, I suspect that even if I had managed to get to the screening of the new film without encountering the trailer or advertising, my expectations would have been flattened like a tax-collector hit with a quarterstaff by the opening dialogue. 'I could tell you what year all this happened,' says the blokey voice-over, 'but I've forgotten. I could bore you with the history, but I won't.' Yes, God forbid you should credit the audience with any intelligence, writers of Robin Hood, just patronise away. It really does sound like the makers of the movie getting their excuses in first.
I can understand why, for what the film-makers manage to do is take possibly the most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true. There is lots of history in Robin Hood. It is all just mind-bogglingly, preposterously stupid history. Things get under way with them setting up the romance between good-hearted young nobleman Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton, who has turned into a serviceable enough leading man) and rebellious young working-class girl Marian (Eve Hewson, who is all heavy eyeshadow and embonpoint). However, their idyll is shattered when Robin receives his 'Draft Notice' in the post from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), sending him off to fight in the Middle East. Here we have our first two bits of history – the 'draft letter' scene, which could quite easily come from midwestern America in the late 1960s, and the Sheriff's full-length grey leather trench-coat, which rather leads one to assume he is serving in the Wehrmacht, circa 1940.
It gets better (by which I mean it gets worse). Robin is supposedly serving in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), but the conflict is deliberately presented in a manner designed to create associations with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather more recently – it is the same vicious chaos of house-to-house fighting. Swap out the longbows for assault rifles and stone throwers for air support and the sequence would be utterly indistinguishable from something contemporary.
Anyway, Robin's moral qualms at the execution of prisoners by his brutal unit commander results in him being sent home in disgrace, but also in his earning the respect of an enemy warrior who eventually decides to go by the name of John (Jamie Foxx). Our hero is actually quite pleased to get home and see his girl again, but gets a tremendous surprise when he discovers he has been declared dead, his lands seized, and Marian is now shacked up with a bloke named Will (Jamie 'Sex Dungeon' Dornan). (This, by the way, was nothing to the surprise I got when Robin's ship sailed into 'Nottingham Harbour', as Nottingham is generally agreed to be some sixty miles from the coast.)
Robin soon learns that the Sheriff is manipulating the war in Arabia for his own ends (apparently Nottingham is 'the beating heart of the Crusades'), soaking the poor and spreading dark, divisive tales of multitudes of freedom-hating killers intent on infiltrating western civilisation. He and John resolve to stop it, but this involves discovering what the Sheriff is really doing with the money he takes from his subjects as taxes. They adopt a two-pronged approach – by day, Robin will be a charming young nobleman who will slowly gain the Sheriff's confidence. But by night he will be a bow-slinging robber known only as the Hood!
I don't especially want to labour this point too much, because (as mentioned) the film-makers do make it absolutely clear from the get-go that they couldn't give a stuff about historical accuracy, but, short of proceedings halting for a musical number where Jamie Foxx delivers a new version of his 2005 meteorological ick-fest Storm Forecast, it's hard to see exactly how this film could become any more divorced from things that actually happened in English history. One of the plot drivers is the question of what the Sheriff is up to with the cash, and I would not have been entirely surprised to learn he was secretly building tanks or robots, because it would have been much of a piece with the rest of the film.
Even so, you have to be somewhat staggered by something passing itself off as a Robin Hood film which features no sword-fighting, no band of Merry Men worthy of the title (there are various characters with similar names, but almost without exception they bear no resemblance to the ones from folklore), and in which you only hear the word 'Sherwood' and get a close-up look at a tree in the last five minutes before the credits roll. Prior to this the film is just a generic cod-historical action runaround, most obviously influenced by various computer games and superhero movies and TV shows.
I suppose the big question when one chooses to revisit a fable like this one, if one has any kind of artistic soul, is why you are doing so, given there have been so many previous versions. What is the Robin Hood legend actually about? Why has it endured, and why does it continue to resonate? For me, the legend in its purest form is about a number of things – the complex nature of English society, the relationship between the people and the land, and the national inclination towards independent thinking and natural justice.
If the new version of Robin Hood is about anything beyond special-effects set-pieces, Taron Egerton looking soulful, and Ben Mendelsohn yelling 'I'll boil you alive in your own piss!!!', then it appears to be a sort of glib, one-size-fits-all anti-capitalist and anti-establishment propaganda. Parallels between the situation in the film and recent events are drawn in with broad, clumsy strokes – young people are sent off to die in a foreign war puppeteered by wealthy old men at home, the poor are screwed over by the economic system, and corrupt leaders cynically employ divisive and racist rhetoric to maintain control over the masses.
You could, I suppose, have introduced some of these themes into a Robin Hood movie, if they were handled with care and delicacy, and inserted as a subtext. But here, the whole film feels like a cack-handed attempt at allegory – not so much Robin Hood as Occupy Sherwood.
I will try to find something nice to say about this film, beyond simply that it is not quite as bad as Peter Rabbit (I still had my head in my hands at various points, though). Well – much of it is quite well-staged, and competently organised. I suppose the production values are quite good, although the costumes and sets bear no relation to any particular point in history. Ben Mendelsohn does his best as the Sheriff (too many of the supporting cast are simply wooden). The plot sort of hangs together, on its own terms. But that's about it, really.
The Rabbit comparison is a pertinent one, actually: in both cases, a well-known tale (or body of tales) has been comprehensively gutted of anything resembling the traditional content, in favour of something which the makers presumably think is contemporary, 'street', and edgy, but all the charm and texture of the original has been lost in the process. This is, by any rational standard, an awful Robin Hood film. It will probably make a lot of money. But give me Michael Praed any day.