REVIEW: Robin Hood (2018)
"I used to be Robin of Loxley. Then I was the Hood. Now, I don't care what you call me. I just know I need your help."
Released on the 21st of November, this latest version of history's greatest outlaw was divisive as soon as the trailer was released. With obviously un-English architecture, machine-stitched hoods and Molotov cocktails & explosions, this was always going to be Robin Hood with a twist. From day dot, people were comparing it to last year's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, another centuries-old folk tale turned into a modern-sounding-and-looking deviation from the 'classic' story. Otto Bathurst's Robin Hood is more than just a reimagining on the tale; it actively removes itself from the back catalogue of Robin Hood tales. A voice over from Tuck in the opening moments tells you to, 'forget what you think you know, forget what you've seen before.' This is a story inspired by Robin Hood; it's not pretending to be history, it's not pretending to be classic. It's its own thing. That is its greatest strength, and its shortcomings are entirely of its own making. Robin Hood is a clever and fun reworking of the legend. It just doesn't go far enough. (SPOILERS BELOW!)
The film opens with Marian (Eve Hewson) stealing a horse from a manor, as her neighbour's horse has died and he now cannot plough his fields and feed his family - the manor is that of Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton). They are immediately smitten, a whirlwind romance ensuing, until Robin receives a draft notice from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) to fight in the Third Crusade. Four years later, Robin intervenes in Guy of Gisbourne's (Paul Anderson) systemic execution of unarmed Saracen prisoners. Gisbourne shoots Robin and sends him home to England on a hospital barge. Stowing away on board, Yahya ibn Umar (Jamie Foxx), an injured and captured Saracen archer, follows Robin across Nottingham as he finds his manor gutted of wealth and Marian lost to the streets. Robin finds Tuck (Tim Minchin) who informs him of the Sheriff's
declaring him dead two years earlier, and of his crippling effect on Nottingham, taking everything from the people to pay for the war in Arabia. Robin finds Marian working in the poor mining town outside Nottingham city, where she has moved on, believing him dead, and in a relationship with local politician Will Tillman (Jamie Dornan). Yahya confronts Robin, having followed him because Robin tried to save the life of his son at Gisbourne's hands, and he convinces the Crusader to join forces to disrupt the Sheriff's plans; steal his money, cap his power. Yahya, going by 'John' to help Robin's hideous pronunciation, teaches Robin to use his recurved horsebow and to stealthily work his way through obstacles, leading to raids on churches and toll roads.
Robin fakes his way back into Nottingham society, earning the favour of the Sheriff by donating huge sums of money to the corrupt church - money stolen by him in disguise as 'the Hood.' Robin secretly gives money to Marian to help her and, overhearing her say to Tuck she wishes the thief would give to the people instead, Robin mounts ever-more-elaborate heists to steal more money, giving it to the poor in the mining down, inspiring them to nail hoods to the buildings of Nottingham city in solidarity against the Sheriff's regime.
A cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) is dispatched from Rome to put pressure on the Sheriff to continue to pay his due to the war effort after the Hood's thefts, revealing in front of Robin that the severe war tax is to fund the Arab army, the goal being to defeat the King (unnamed, interestingly) and
swoop in, taking power in England for themselves. Marian and Tuck have been collaborating for months and, during an elaborate party for the cardinal, they take the chance to steal payment records, written in Arabic and with the Sheriff's seal. John is captured while he and Robin flee the party to stop a new, vicious raid on the mines by the returned Gisbourne, under the Sheriff's orders. Robin and Marian meet during the chase, the Hood's identity revealed, and they combine their information, leading them to mount one large heist; steal the collected tax money before it leaves the country. Robin and Will, on either side of the political fence, implore the people into action, eventually joining forces to organise the theft. Will begrudgingly leads a smoke-screen of a riot in order for Robin and Marian to steal the money with the townsfolk; the theft is successful, but Will sees an intimate moment between Rob and Marian and is caught off-guard by the Sheriff's men, severely injuring him, and he bitterly renounces his love for Marian. Robin, seeing the hideous fighting, gives himself up to end the riot. Robin is revealed as the Hood to the Sheriff, who moves to kill him, when he is saved by an escaped John; John kills the Sheriff, vengeance for the death of his son, and he, Robin and Marian, along with the group of townsfolk involved in the theft, flee to Sherwood Forest with the money. Will is recruited by the cardinal and becomes the new sheriff; he denounces the Hood and vows to kill him, and Robin declares his intent to continue to fight back.
As a Robin Hood film, this edition is certainly new and different; this has been a huge dividing point, some feeling it strays too far from the original narrative, or at least, the original aesthetic. Something I've been saying for a while is; if you want stoic historicism, you've got Russell Crowe and Martin Potter; if you want storybooks, you've got Doug Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Anything else is up for grabs. For any adaptation or reboot of a well-known and well-established story, the key is
to do something fundamentally different, worth bothering with. In this adaptation, most of that sentiment is poured into the look and tone of the film; the costumes are notably modern, the sets are notably Mediterranean, the dialogue is notably short and obvious. It's a twist on the tale in as much as it's an adaptation of the ideas of a Robin Hood film. Largely, it succeeds, the downfalls of the movie being the lack of fleshing out of the world, making everything come across as superficial. It's certainly not under-planned, the ideas being strong, original and quite clever. The problem is they're not explored. To examine the film, I'm going to breakdown the characters, rather than do a blow-by-blow with plot points. New and fresh it is, but falling short of its potential.
Robin of Loxley
We're introduced to Robin as the self-described 'toff of the manor,' the young lord of Loxley. The notable thing straight away is he has no apparent family; he's not the son of the lord, but rather, he is the lord. Robin cares for nothing but Marian before he leaves for the Crusades. During this time, we see he has an astute sense of right and wrong, protesting to Gisbourne's execution of unarmed prisoners, eventually stepping in and fighting his fellow Englishmen to save the live of a young Saracen, Yahya's son, releasing a stream of prisoners at the same time. He's entered into the war against his will; previous Robins have [largely] been happy to serve in the Crusade, either in the King's service directly or as a humble member of a larger army, only returning disillusioned. This Robin was drafted, openly unhappy about having to fight. When he returns, his home has been all but destroyed, Marian thrown out, she entering another relationship, with the Sheriff pouring rhetoric against the Arabians Rob knows to be a lie, leaving him bitter and vengeful about the last four years. Joining John, they originally plan to simply remove the Sheriff's wealth from him, therefore stripping him of power. He is motivated purely by getting Marian back, or at the very least, striking back against the Sheriff. It's only when he learns more about Marian's work with the poor that he translates his skill as a thief into giving the money he steals away to them. Things spiral beyond his control, but still he sees himself as a thief, not as anything grander like the people of Nottingham envision him to be. Marian has to remind him that, whatever he was trying to achieve, his work is bigger than him now, and he has to follow it through. He has his life reformed by Marian twice; when they first meet, making him more human and kind, and as the Hood, realising that if he can help people, it's his responsibility to - "If not you, who? If not now, when?"
Taron Egerton was chosen for the role, according to Otto Bathurst, for his ability for audiences to feel for his characters, and it's apparent here. There's more than one instances where Robin breaks down in anger or sadness for the state of his life, having to be pulled to his senses by John. A more sensitive Robin is refreshing to see; Robin's strength and determination is usually played up, only emphasised by his more sensitive side. Sensitive is all the sides this Robin has, his actions motivated by it, either through his sadness or his anger. He seems comfortable as a lord, though removed from any sort of corrupt political power; he's just a guy with money living in his estate on a hillside. It's an interesting place to put him; he's not involved with the Sheriff until he returns; he's not pro-Crusade, pro-religion, pro-tax; there's no skewed worldview, viewing peasants as lowly, nor is he the people's champion before his crusading and outlawry. For being a nobleman, he's presented entirely as a regular guy, pulled away from his comfortable life with his love and his home, rather than from his money, which doesn't enter into it. This gives him a very grounded entry point to becoming a thief; he's not stepping up his already-functioning fight against the Sheriff, but nor is he having to form a new worldview based on some new sense of humility; he's fighting back against the forces that have stolen his freedom, his love and his life - the knock-on effect is starting a revolution.
As per modern tradition, this version of the film includes a Muslim member of Robin's gang - in this
case, he is the reason for Robin becoming Robin Hood, the reason why there will later be a gang, and this character is 2018's version of Little John. We first see John as an archer fighting in the Crusades, squaring up against Robin and overpowering him, Gisbourne saving his fellow Englishman in the nick of time, severing John's hand and capturing him. Watching Gisbourne execute prisoners, he springs to life when he sees his son about to be killed; Robin tries to save him but fails, and John escapes the ensuing chaos. John stows away on the English hospital barge, following Robin in order to recruit him in his plot of vengeance against the Sheriff; he singles Robin out for his bravery in saving his son - "I couldn't save him!" "But you tried to. In all my years of war, I've never seen anything like it. That's why I chose you." He proposes to teach Robin how to become a thief, stealing the Sheriff's money and thereby crippling him.
John is a strict and playful teacher, pushing Rob to his limits in teaching him new skills, particularly with his Saracen weapons and fighting styles. He is interested only in taking money and coaching Robin to be the Sheriff's confidant; he is tickled but not enthused by Robin's notion of hitting the treasury itself. When Robin proves his mettle in breaking into and escaping the treasury, John is fully on board with the idea of giving back to the people. John's passion is certainly in his faith, though it's not pushed heavily; it's so strong that the Sheriff uses it against him, and the fear of not being reunited with his son in death is enough to make him lash out.
Like most of the characters' drawbacks in this version, we absolutely know the character's motivations - they're clear and with depth - but they're only mentioned once and, when this has been and gone, they're taken as read and worked with, when instead a little more exploration would make them all the more compelling. When John confronts Rob in Nottingham and recruits him into his vengeful scheme, he just blurts out an entire manifesto to Robin and, from that point onward, it's all Robin and John working together with no further discussion about the war, their friends, their family, their work. Just tunnel-vision and on with the job. This is disappointing, especially given Rob and John met trying to kill each other in the war both have denounced. We understand why John wants to bring down the Sheriff because he says exactly why he wants to, and then that's it. His motivation is told and then it's done. It is, unfortunately, a theme that resonates through all of the characters of the film, but its felt probably the most with John. He's a peripheral figure after Robin becomes the Hood, losing his mentor status and becoming something of a partner-in-crime, due largely to his simple lack of screen time. This is a shame because he's easily the most complicated figure in the film, having his lands and people destroyed by the Crusaders and working with a Crusader to undo it.
As a Little John figure, he has the strength and the heart of his counterparts; there is nothing of the giant from Hathersage, but weirdly it's not an issue. For a Little John figure to be this different, it's good to see that the nobility of the character is enough to make him a great fit for the archetypal role of Robin Hood's second-in-command.
Marian has a track record of being underused, whether it's because she simply doesn't have enough to do or because she's relegated to just the female character of the film. Unfortunately, Eve Hewson's fantastic portrayal of Marian is cut back so far back that her actions become almost confusing. She is the heart of the story, giving motivation for both Robin and Will, and being the person who drives Rob to become something more than a petty thief. She has the strongest emotional plot in the film, torn between her love for Rob, who she thought dead, and Will, who she genuinely feels for, but she is now torn due to Rob's reemergence in Nottingham. Unfortunately, this conflict happens as soon as she finds out Rob's alive, and then her general bewilderment at what's happening around her with the Hood, combined with her increasing arguments with Will about his passiveness, lead to her eventual reunion with Robin feeling very shallow and quick, almost like she's forgotten about Will entirely.
It's a big shame, given she's the first character we see, breaking into the Loxley stables to steal horse. Immediately, we know she is motivated by her morality and her empathy, her theft being to benefit a downtrodden neighbour. When Rob tracks her down upon his return to England, she is in the mining town volunteering, giving out food for the poor, something it's referenced she does a lot. She's adamant about fighting back against the cruelty of the Sheriff, having been plotting for months with Tuck to make some kind of a stand, which culminates in using her rare opportunity of a castle invite to sneak into the Sheriff's strongroom and steal documents. What's a bit short about this version of Marian is, despite her forward-thinking and steadfastness, these moments are big tentpoles in her story, rather than a nice even flow. We get the horse theft, then nothing. Then a reminder of her goodness in her volunteer work, then nothing. Stealing the documents, then nothing. Her good actions are almost noteworthy because they're highlighted, rather than a trait; they're prioritised above showing the conflict within herself, trying to reconcile her feelings for both Rob and Will.
She isn't shy about speaking out against the Sheriff, not only heckling him at his own rally, but accusing him of causing the conditions of the town's poverty to his face at his own party. She's not afraid to stand up for what she believes in not in a wishy-washy moral way, but in literally squaring up to the Sheriff and calling him out on all the pain he's caused ordinary people. This makes her a very endearing, very memorable Marian, up there with other steadfast Marians like Lucy Griffiths, Olivia de Havilland and Bernadette O'Farrell, but unfortunately, the tepid handling of her more complicated storylines leaves her feeling like a secondary character in her own great caper.
The unnamed Sheriff is one of the highlights of the film, as has become almost standard, these days. Mendelsohn's Sheriff is a schemer, a calm and calculated man with utter rage boiling under the skin, and it doesn't take much for him to unleash it. It's not that he doesn't have control over his anger, it's more he knows that using it is greatly to his advantage, whether it's intimidating his clergyman Tuck, conspiring against his own lords with Robin, or spitting the title of his superiors back in their face to demonstrate his fearlessness and determination. We get a seldom-touched-on piece of character-building in this Sheriff - a backstory. His hate of the lords stems from his childhood bullying and beating at the hands of their fathers and the clergy of the time, being battered with broomsticks and silenced with brandy; "I never screamed. But I hate the taste of brandy." This Sheriff is motivated by his ambition to never fall lower than he has been, though he sees his past as something he has overcome; this Sheriff has no weaknesses, until the Hood interrupts his plans. Even then, the Sheriff mindlessly manages the Hood's actions; it's only when the church puts pressure on him to keep coughing up money that he begins to be flustered by him.
He is a fierce influencer, knowing his enemies' strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of his 'allies'. When interrogating John, who offers to be beaten rather than give up information about the Hood, the Sheriff doesn't touch him; "You'd just die on me out of spite." When John calls the Sheriff out on his godlessness, the Sheriff uses John's declaration of his faith against him in one of the greatest Sheriff threats in recent years - "I will gorge you in pig's blood and burn you and you will never see paradise. Or, I'll martyr you quickly, cleanly, and you will see your boy again." This Sheriff has no limits, and this is entirely to his advantage.
It's implied the Sheriff drafts people into the war in order to seize their wealth; he's seen personally writing these notices, and two years into Robin's four-year military stint, he reads his name from a list of fallen soldiers and guts his manor of riches. The Sheriff seems to have some kind of high status in the secret plot to take down the king, with the cardinal himself travelling from Rome to Nottingham to speak with him, and the Sheriff isn't afraid to call him a mere 'priest' to his face. The world of this film seems to be almost entirely centered on devotion to the church, simple bishops having a great control of, or presence over, the Sheriff. The corruption of the church is well known and widespread, and of course the Crusade is all in the name of God, reclaiming the Holy Land from the Saracens. Therefore, it can be assumed that the plot to defeat the English army stems from the very church itself, as even the bishop of Nottingham is in on the plot, though Tuck is not. The Sheriff is more aligning himself with the church in order to further his career goal of seizing more power. What that power entails after the English army would be defeated, we don't know; it's not explored enough, and it's certainly not mentioned after the first instance. All we know is the Sheriff would have been even stronger than he is now, and surely in a way that would allow him to step out of the church's shadow. All that is put to an end by the Hood, though, and the Sheriff meets his end at John's hands, hung from an oil burner in the centre of the cathedral.
A career politician, Will is the most criminally undercooked character in the film. He is both Robin's romantic and political rival; he is in a genuine relationship with Marian, but this is shaken by Rob's return; he is a quiet, unassuming, slightly ass-kissing rural politician, who dismisses the Hood as a fad, reactionary and dangerous. This is fantastic fuel for his rivalry with Rob, both as a figure in and of himself and, as the film ends, the new Sheriff. Unfortunately, Will has a handful of scenes in the movie; all progress his character, either showing his unbalanced home life with Marian, showing respect for the Sheriff and being generally disdainful of Rob, whether he's in his toff persona or not. We simply don't see or explore him enough to the point where all his scenes are like pieces of a puzzle, putting him together. Marian laments for his passive and rhetorical spiels, trying to persuade him into action, but he refuses in favour of playing his political game safely. When trying to inspire the people to move away from Nottingham, a cowardly stance as far as the people are concerned, he again dismisses Rob's actions as the Hood as dangerous, citing the recent raids and destruction of the mining town as a direct result of his thefts. After hesitantly joining Robin in his plan to attack the convoy of money and steal it, Will leads a riot as a distraction; Robin and Marian kissing causes him to pause in the street, where he is beaten by a guard, falling and dropping his petrol bomb (yeah) and disfiguring his face. This pain, coupled with his new hatred of Marian and Robin, leads him to become the new Sheriff by the cardinal's appointment, and he declares his intent; "This only ends one way. With me, standing over the corpse of the Hood."
Like Marian's unseen conflict, so much of Will's inner turmoil is obvious voicing of his concerns, and the first time things are mentioned are the only time. He starts as a sympathetic figure, the guy in Marian's life who is good and kind and around only because Rob's not, but because we see him so little, his slide from a good man to an antagonist to the outright villain just sort of happens, where one scene he's homely with Marian and trying to befriend Robin, the next he's arguing with Marian about her dishonesty and shouting that she's not going to ruin his life's work. He's certainly one for making his presence known; he heckles the Sheriff during his rally one day and thanks him for his invite to a party another; he's toeing the line in a way that keeps his name clean and revered. There is at least one scene in the trailers featuring Will where he discusses life with Marian a little deeper, but they don't make the trailers. There's simply not enough exploration of what makes WiIll tick, and his feelings about his life, for this transition into enemy of Rob and Marian to cover much ground.
Interestingly, his name means nothing. Promotional material for the film called him 'Will Scarlet,' but the credits of the film call him 'Will Tillman.' I assumed there would be some throwaway joke about his name, especially towards the end with his burns, calling him 'Will Scarlet' almost like a nickname derived from his hatred, like Ray Winstone's Will Scathlocke in Robin of Sherwood. But there wasn't. It's a weird move only because there are promotional photos where Lionsgate says 'Jamie Dornan as Will Scarlet,' so no reference to this in the film stands out, especially given they changed his surname. It seems 'Will' is just a name, nothing more significant.
Tuck is the personal clergyman to the Sheriff, reporting directly to him and accompanying him on errands around town. He is a meek, gentle man, though outwardly questioning of the church's miserly work, preaching the gospels at the Sheriff's expense. A longtime friend of Robin's, he befriends Marian during his absence to the point where they scheme against the Sheriff together. Though technically the comic relief of the film, Tim Minchin plays Tuck with such modesty his humour becomes more of a bewildered commentary on what's happening around him. He feels restricted by the church's corruption, Robin's Lord Loxley persona arranging for him to be expelled from the church coming as a blessing to him. He keeps his faith, but now goes all-in in his already-well-established fight against the Sheriff.
This Tuck is wildly different to the portly, pottering priest of tradition, more akin to the wise Brother Tuck (David Harewood) of the BBC's 2009 series. This Tuck is an intellectual, a free-thinker and a warm, welcoming figure, able to read Arabic, make petrol bombs (yeah) and pick pockets. Along with the Sheriff, Tuck is also the highlight of the film, the calm underdog flittering throughout the entire world, pulling strings beside the Sheriff, beside Marian, beside Robin. He's also the audience's entry point into the story, narrating the bookends of the film, telling us to forget what we know, and that the story is only just beginning. Any Tuck that isn't a large man in a brown robe with a taste for ale and venison is a treat, as he can very quickly become an archetype without much substance. With this Tuck, we not only get originality, but a genuinely key player in the story.
Guy of Gisbourne
The muscle of the film, this Gisbourne is a Crusader like Robin, his commander in the Holy Land in fact, though restricted in his administration of discipline by Robin's noble status. He is a brave fighter but a cruel leader, executing unarmed prisoners by his superior's orders but with no ill-feeling toward the task. He shoots Robin during his interference in the executions, ordering him back to England; Gisbourne, too, returns to England, becoming the Sheriff's enforcer, tasked with stripping the mining town of their remaining wealth and hunting down the Hood. (Gisbourne has the best line in the film, Tuck taken aback by his intimidating team - "They certainly look ready to do the lord's work," to which Gisbourne replies, "Yes, with the devil's pride.") Like every version of Gisbourne, he's a blank canvas, being whatever the respective version needs him to be; in this case, he's not so much a personal rival of Robin's affections or status as per tradition, but more a personal enemy, with Robin knowing Gisbourne's ruthlessness inside-out, and Gisbourne not thinking much of Robin's battlefield empathy. He's almost delighted to find out he is the Hood, being able to fulfil his task of destroying him with a splash of personal glee. He is knocked down my Marian during the riot, living to fight another day, presumably to become the new Sheriff Will's right-hand-man. This Gisbourne doesn't feature a lot, but he's a staggering presence when he does, his cruelty and great strength jumping off the screen. Paul Anderson plays him with obvious glee, making him a very fun villain to be around. As the direct cause of John's son's death, and a big part of the catalyst for the story (John's revenge and Robin's teaming up with him), they surprisingly keep John and Gisbourne apart; there is a brief moment during a horse chase, with Gisbourne pursuing the escaping Hood, where he seems to recognise John at the helm, but they don't interact at any point beyond that. John's hate seems to be for the Sheriff alone as the cause of this conflict, Gisbourne simply following orders. That's very much Gisbourne in the grand scheme of things; a cog in the machine, but certainly a memorable one.
Gisbourne as a staple of Robin Hood stories is kind of new; either he's a minor feature, a chapter, the horse-hide wearing bounty hunter outsmarted by Robin in the forest, or he's a direct rival, pursuing Marian and claiming Robin's lands. Some feature him prominently, others feature him very little, some not at all. This Gisbourne is memorable, a worthy villain for Robin to face, and certainly a nice break from the romantic rival trope. He's an imposing and genuinely frightful figure, and his inclusion isn't just ticking off the list of characters to make this Robin Hood story more complete.
All in all, the new film does stand out in the catalogue of Robin Hood films for its uniqueness and young, modern approach. Where it doesn't stack up, however, is in its strength of character and of story. The frustrating thing is, everything that could make the movie better is actively present in the film, pushing the plot and the characters forward - they're just not used enough. We understand Will's resentment of both the Hood and Robin politically, as well as his personal dislike for Rob as a romantic rival; this perfectly fuels his eventual rise to Sheriff, we just don't get that expressed clearly enough. We understand the Sheriff and the church want to give money to the Saracens to help them defeat the King; we just don't see that plot or desire fleshed out beyond the first instance of it being mentioned, it's just what makes the plot move into a heist rather than thefts. We understand Marian's confusion about her genuine relationship with Will fighting against her past relationship with Rob that only ended because he was 'dead'; we simply don't see the struggle spoken of or played out, and so when she settles with Rob, that's how it feels - just settled upon. All the things that make this film good, strong and unique are in the movie, they're just not pushed far enough. The result is a movie that feels too simple, when the plot demands more sophisticated politics and motivations. It also feels very undercooked because the things that are lacking are actively in there, which is why it's frustrating. There have certainly been Robin Hoods with thinner, more simple and more lazy plots, like the limp The Son of Robin Hood or the dreary Men of Sherwood Forest, or the colourless Sword of Sherwood Forest that makes even the famed Richard Greene look dull (especially when compared against his own series!). Simply, this film is superficial because it doesn't go far enough with its own ideas which, to be honest, isn't the end of the world. If the end result is an entertaining film, then you can't really be that mad. The pace is great, moving from set piece to set piece, without losing time on unnecessary details or pointless jaunts, which it easily could have fallen into, with this genre and tone. The action is well-crafted, the costumes are stunning, and the whole feel of the film is that you're having fun, the accuracy of the film irrelevant. When it comes to the depth of the story itself, maybe an extended edition of the home video release will change things. There are certainly scenes in the trailers not present in the film; maybe it's yet another case of 'cut for time.' Could it have been better? Of course. But its shortcomings weren't because the characters were poor, the look dull, the pace poor. It's simply because it wasn't a little bit braver. At any rate, when it comes to Robin Hood, this new addition to the canon is extremely welcome; it's certainly the most individual of the lot, which is to be commended. A genuine, though admittedly kind, 7/10.
What would you like to have discussed? A big movie, an obscure show, a weird knick-knack from a forgotten decade? Let me know in the comments or send a message!
All photos care of Lionsgate Publicity.