Russell Crowe and the Robin Hood that Could Have Been

Russell Crowe is a Hollywood oddball. He likes to play complicated introverts, but in the context of historical epics. At their best, his films follow tight, character-driven plots informed by intensely real historical settings. Robin Hood, released Friday, flirted with a potentially brilliant political-philosophical twist that could have made it Crowe’s best yet. Sadly, the twist was dumped after the first date.

Crowe knows how to use a semi-historical adventure as a canvas for a brilliantly-painted character. His characters are often works of art, seamlessly situated in time and place. Master and Commander brilliantly illustrated early 19th century British conservatism and liberalism by showing how two characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, dealt with the stresses of a long voyage in the Royal Navy. In one memorable scene as the ship’s crew nears anarchy, Aubrey makes a case for order and discipline while his friend accuses him of being a tyrant. The plot has been set up so well that Aubrey’s view sounds far more reasonable to 21st century ears than it otherwise might.

Robin Hood follows in the Crowe mold in some respects. Director Ridley Scott does a superb job dramatizing the English peasants’ plight, and the film looks authentic in a way none of the more romantic Robin Hood movies ever did. As in Gladiator, the film’s first and last few minutes are occupied by lavish battle scenes. The characters are gritty and generally well-rounded, and the appropriate moments are relatively satisfying. The movie is far too long, but mostly enjoyable.

But Crowe’s newest picture departs from his former work in several ways. Its plot is neither tight nor character-driven. Instead, we find a sprawling story that never quite seems to get around to itself. At no point is it clear why Crowe’s character is motivated to do anything he does. And unlike Crowe’s other highly quotable work, the screenplay offers few if any memorable lines, despite several opportunities for them. (But just in case viewers felt cheated of anything original, the movie offers some of the most bizarre, out-of-place end credit animations this author has seen.)

But it is the time and place factor that kills the film. Other Robin Hood adaptations have been set in a timeless world during the absence of the crusading Richard I. Crowe’s version, like 2004’s atrocious King Arthur, tries to vaguely relate the story to heavily-altered historical events, apparently opting to provide historical context like Crowe’s other films. This could have been a shrewd move, because the director chose to bring the early stages of the Magna Charta into the story. For a few minutes, the viewer (in relief) finally thinks he has figured out where Scott is taking the plot: Robin Hood is the secret influence behind the reorganization of England as a constitutional monarchy!

This would have been a fascinating direction in which to take the film—even for those who are not political theory nerds. It would have, like Crowe’s other films, situated his character in time (during the pre-Magna Charta tyranny) and place (mainly Nottingham). When Prince/King John mockingly wonders if every man in England should have a castle, Crowe replies, “Every Englishman’s home is his castle!”—and is on the verge of tying the confused plot into an audacious political-historical drama. After all, the period of oppression that led to the Magna Charta is a perfect spot in which to situate the story of the Merry Men, with a wealth of opportunities for original twists and turns.

Instead, the film’s time span is lost in an alternate-reality setting that radically rearranges both the nature and the order of historical events. In the course of those events, it leaps from place to place so many times and with such rapidity that the “London”s and “French Coast”s we see typed onto the screen begin to look like subtitles. Immediately following the Magna Charta moment, we suddenly find ourselves in an improbable do-over of the Normans’ invasion. After the obligatory sweeping battle scene (in which, of course, the leading lady comes out to fight), we are treated to several more silly plot twists that make no sense except to set up a sequel.

With actors and a director so gifted, Crowe (who co-produced the film) had an opportunity for another lavish adventure film with subtle philosophical undertones. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he understands character-crafting as an art that requires context. The founding of modern England and its “liberty by law” has rarely been touched by Hollywood, and Crowe and Scott could have used that to their advantage.

Or they could have settled for good characters, good dialogue and a plot that made sense.

1 Comment

  • May 17, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    Good work, Brian. It makes me feel validated in not seeing the movie due to a plethora of “two-stars-out-of-four” reviews. However, it’s clear that you opted for a less strictly rationalist, and more nuanced rating system. I don’t understand why Rotten Tomatoes won’t include an account of the aesthetico-philosophical backdrop of constitutional narrative …