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What's Happening? I Forget

After playing an out of shape journalist in last year’s “State of Play,” Russell Crowe returns to form, as yet another taciturn historical hero (a la Master and Commander and Gladiator) in Robin Hood — the Prequel.

   OK, it’s not really called that, but the movie purports to tell the story of how Robin Longstride, a humble but brave and honest archer in King Richard’s army, becomes an outlaw on the run from Richard’s louche and venal younger brother John.

   What is that story?

   Damned if I know. The turgid plot was impossible to follow and I couldn’t possibly keep track of all the characters or remember which one is good and which one is evil. Well, it was obvious that Mark Strong’s character, the glowering Godfrey, was evil because he smirked slyly and spoke French. King John must be bad because he wanted to raise taxes. (Or does that make him good?) And William Hurt was good because he’s William Hurt.

   The year is 1199, and after the death of Richard the Lionhearted (good, I think) in battle abroad, Robin and his motley band of friends abandon the army and return to England, riding to Nottingham to return a sword to the father of another fallen warrior, Robert Loxley. He finds Loxley’s father (Max Von Sydow) and widow Marian (Cate Blanchett) suffering under the heavy burden of taxation placed on them by King John, who takes all their seed corn, leaving them nothing to plant. No sooner has Robin solved that problem when his arch enemy, Godfrey, appears, seeking revenge. For what? I forget. Doesn’t matter. Battles ensue.

   The mood is unrelentingly somber. Crowe’s Robin Hood is all glumness, all the time (he’s got father issues to work out — I think it’s a SAG requirement these days that a hero come to terms with memories of dad). Even the Merry Men have nothing merry about them. They are witless in every sense of the word. The only comic relief is provided by the welcome Matthew Macfadyen, previously known to Austen-heads as the dreamy Mr. Darcy, who here plays a vaguely evil but mostly incompetent Sheriff of Nottingham, with a light touch and even a bit of goofiness (dreaminess fully intact!).

   He makes a few moves on Cate Blanchett’s Marian but is no match for her steely resolve. It takes the better part of two hours for Russell Crowe to win her over in time for the final battle.

   Despite all these criticisms, I must say that I was mostly entertained, and rarely bored. Ridley Scott does grand sweep and violent battle better than most.  The few times my mind wandered (to recollections of the boys in my 7th-grade class playing swords and shields in the woods at recess, or to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I was soon brought back to attention by Crowe’s bare chest, or leaping horses, or another brief appearance by Mr. Darcy.

   I left the theater happily humming Allan Sherman’s immortal and hilarious ballad of that other Sherwood Forest knight who is tired of “slaying and slewing like Robin Hood” and wishes to “kick the habit, and give up smoting for good.” (It’s on YouTube.) Russell Crowe will surely keep smiting and smoting as long as it brings in the box office, but I hope Matthew Macfadyen goes back to Austen. I prefer my historic heroes in tailcoats, not chain mail.

   “Robin Hood” is rated PG-13 for violence, including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content.

   It is playing at The Moviehouse in Millerton, NY.

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