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Robin Hood. Could have been much better.

Due to circumstances only tangentally within my control, I ended up seeing the new Robin Hood three times in the last two weeks. Considering the last movie I saw in the cinema was ... I don’t even know. Book of Eli? I think. Anyway – it’s rather a lot. But it turned out okay, as it gave me the opportunity to work out exactly where I think they (ironically) missed the mark.

Before that, though, let me say that I did like it. (Thank goodness. Although if I didn’t, I’d have found some way of not seeing it so many times.) I like Russell Crowe; he’s a very good actor with an impressive range, and he seems like he’d be a fun bloke to have a beer with. I like Ridley Scott; he’s an expert world-builder (in the sense that he makes the world of his story feel real, historical and yet contemporary, not that he’s historically accurate) and a decent storyteller. I’m okay, or generally okay enough, with the writer – Brian Hegeland, who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale.

It was, literally, a cross between Gladiator and A Knight’s Tale. Which is actually a decent concept – if they do it right. As it was, there were enough strong elements to carry it, but both story structure and script were just too busy for a unified impact. They made four elementary plot lines where they only needed three, and thereby undercut all of them. It’s not even hard to figure out which line they should have axed.

You have the “classic” Robin Hood stuff: returned crusader, Locksley, Nottingham, Marian, sheriff, merry men and the rest, and you can mix’n’match all those quite a lot and still have a very strong narrative line, because the relationships themselves are strong and yield tension and conflict where needed. As this was an origin story, that’s pretty easy to nail, and nail it they did. This was definitely the strongest and most entertaining subplot, and I suspect they could almost have stuck entirely to this and still had a decent story. Of course, they’d be accused of unoriginality, because it’s had enough incarnations in the past. They were determined to add their own stamp, unfortunately. In any case, this one’s essential, because it is Robin Hood.

You have the King John political stuff, redolent of the palace intrigue and themes of Commodus, in Gladiator, in the handling if not the actual circumstances. Again, fine; Scott has a deft hand with this kind of thing; it’s genuinely interesting and part of the Robin Hood mythos. Unlike Gladiator, though, in this Robin Hood telling there was no real connection between the powers-that-be and our plucky hero. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, I wish they’d left it that way, rather than try to engineer a meeting of worlds between the two. Especially the way they chose to do it.

The third subplot was the real conflict generator, the machinations of the French to stir up unrest in England, undermine John’s rule, and invade. It wasn’t strictly necessary to the Robin Hood story, but it was a good addition; it sets the action in a larger world of conflict and consequences, makes the world wide and real. It gives John something to do other than hang around being an unjust ruler, and I actually thought it was stronger than the political stuff of Gladiator. Given Scott’s ability to weave these elements convincingly, this storyline was all that was needed to put a “new” spin on the story and justify yet another retelling.

But are we satisfied with that? No, we’re not! We don’t trust those three to create compelling story and characters, but we bloody well should have. (That was a little frustration leaking through there.) Or at least, given the nature of the fourth subplot, I suspect it was Hegeland who wasn’t satisfied, and whoever was calling the final shots didn’t convince him otherwise. We have to make Robin Truly Iconic: a Champion of the People, a Child of Destiny! (Because he wasn’t that enough before.) Otherwise, how will he truly be a Hero for Our Times?

I know! Include the first drafting of the Magna Carta! Drafted by Robin’s father (a stonemason, no less, haha yes very clever)! Then make the father a tragic and heroic martyr for the cause, leaving Robin an orphan at the tender age of six to make his own way through the world! So Robin, a common but moral man, with a great but buried legacy, gets caught up in epic sweep of the Lionheart’s crusade as an archer. He then seizes on an early opportunity provided by chance, impersonates a knight, and rediscovers a father connection (really, Hegeland?) in and through Walter of Locksley.

As a character, Robin essentially leaps, fully-formed, as a defender of the people’s rights from Hegeland’s fervidly libertarian imagination. Robin is the way he is because his father was that way before him. Obviously. It only took the right circumstances to draw it out of him. Not because, for example, he saw injustice in the crusades, and at home, and became convicted to do something about it, or any other meaty and interesting character evolution. He just ... is. Um. Yay?

It’s interesting to note that Maximus in Gladiator didn’t have a “character arc” to speak of, either. His principles and fundamental motives didn’t change, except where desire to get back to his family became desire to avenge them, but even then, he was ultimately looking to rejoin them in the afterlife. And you know what? It worked. Characters, even heroes, don’t have to have transformative arcs. There’s what’s called a revelatory arc, in which the story is us discovering that the hero is exactly what he needs to be to solve the conflict he’s presented with, rather than having to change in response to it (and to solve it). A revelatory character does learn some new things, but that doesn’t change who he fundamentally is, just how he goes about doing what he does. Neither revelatory nor transformative is inherently better, story-wise.*

But revelatory, as the name implies, only works if it looks, to us and the other characters, like our hero isn’t who he needs to be, or like the obstacles are too great, or he's too broken down, or something. In the case of Gladiator, they took everything from Maximus, thus revealing that he was in himself entirely the quality of man he seemed to be in the beginning (and gave this very formidable man an empire to overcome; other characters, like the gladiator-slave owner Proximo, have transformative arcs). There has to be a journey of discovery involved somewhere. Otherwise it’s not a story.

There are a few, small details put in at the beginning to try to imply (I believe) that Robin had a transformative arc, but they barely register and have no traction. At any rate, they take it all back with the Destined Liberator of the People thing, and decide it was revelatory all along. The problem is, he’s clearly Robin Hood, man of the people, throughout, and the addition of Destiny weighs out all the big political power plays going on. We are left in no doubt that Robin is a match for warring kings, let alone the smaller civil conflicts going on. Guys? Pick one.

That they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) was unfortunate. Maximus worked. Maximus-as-Robin Hood doesn’t, and it’s got nothing to do with how talented Russ is. Because they gave him so little to work with, we were basically watching Russell Crowe, not Robin Hood. Now, watching Russell Crowe isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because he is very watchable, but both he and the character are capable of so much more, and that is a real pity.

And all this would have been avoided if they’d just left out that fourth subplot. Yes, one or two points would have been harder to solve, but I think that would have actually made for better and deeper characterizations. It wouldn’t have changed the plot almost at all, and that right there is telling. The relationships between Robin and Marian and Walter, especially, would have been much, much richer with only a little more effort. (As it is, Marian and Walter had probably the best realised relationship, and thus the biggest emotional payoff.)

More than that, it meant that none of the lines had time to breathe, and we are perpetually kept on the outside of them. We’re not drawn in to them, or any of the characters’ dilemas, because there’s almost no stillness for the necessary intimacy. Too much exposition dialogue and too little conversation. Far too few reflective beats, for us to feel the mind and heart of the characters, which Scott is usually very good at coaxing from his story. Marian has a few of these, but even so, it takes Cate Blanchett’s skill for us to feel her struggle and loneliness and pain and determination. (They then labour the point with making her ride to join Robin in battle, Éowyn-style.)

Anyhow. I liked the characters, the intrigue, the ideas, the basic shape of the origin story. I just wish they’d trusted the damn story, because it was a good one. In the right hands – which I would have said Scott and Crowe had – maybe even a really great one. Whoever saddled them with the lily-gilding (or if it was them who ultimately didn't catch it) did the movie a severe disservice.

*According to John Rogers, anyhow. He argues that in the 2009 Star Trek, Kirk has a revelatory arc, Spock a transformative one; in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, revelatory, Han Solo transformative. SPN has its own example: Sam has a transformative arc, Dean a revelatory. I'd also call James Bond in Casino Royale transformative; James Bond in Quantum of Solace, and every other Bond movie, revelatory.

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January 2016
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