Wednesday, August 28, 2013

FI: Robin and Marian

Robin and Marian
UK/US, 1976
Directed by Richard Lester

Robin and Marian is a film about people trying to carve out space to do as they please, whether by conquest, claiming dominion, or popular acclaim. Richard the Lion-Heart (Richard Harris) sets the theme early on: Despite the best counsel of Robin Hood (Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williamson), he attempts to claim a French castle garrisoned only by unarmed women, children and a one-eyed man, in the name of an ultimately illusory treasure. Later, we see Richard's successor, King John, claiming dominion over England's religion in his feud with the Pope, which turns the former Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn), who has carved out her own space as the head of a convent, into a fugitive. We see the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) claiming autonomy within his county over the objections of King John's noble representative Sir Ranulf (Kennth Haigh). And we see Robin claiming Sherwood for his own, to live in with Marian and the remaining Merry Men. All of these people, even the altruistic-seeming Robin, do this for their own ends, be it power or glory (as in the songs Robin wishes to be sung about his life). But there's always someone more powerful, and even if you avoid or overcome them, age and death are more powerful still; from them there is no safe space.

That sounds weighty, but this is a Richard Lester film, so you might expect that any thematic heft will be leavened by a bit of silliness and physical humor. There's less of that here than in Lester's Three Musketeers or its sequel, but his deftness of tone is evident even around the more serious subject matter. The film is set largely after Robin and Little John return from Richard's campaign in France, some twenty years after their most famous run-ins with then-Prince John and the Sheriff. Everyone involved has aged, and though they may pretend otherwise, none of them has truly moved on. As such, James Goldman's script walks a delicate line, handling the later years of these forever-young icons with a light, almost melancholy touch. For some of them, the safe space they are attempting to create is one they are trying to reclaim out of nostalgia for their youthful exploits. For others, it's a space they need as a buffer from a past that hasn't quite left them behind.

Lester isn't exactly known as an "actor's director," but here he coaxes fine performances out of his cast, who lift the material above what amounts to a fairly slight story. The chief standouts are Shaw's older, wiser, Nottingham, who seems to have learned a new respect for Robin during his adversary's absence, and Williamson's big-hearted Little John, whose relationship (romance?) with Robin is almost more moving than Robin and Marian's. Connery himself does fine work as the belligerently roguish Robin. Indeed, one of Robin and Marian's triumphs is how, despite being a Robin Hood film,  it mocks heroism and bloody-mindedness by turning Robin into a tragic fool via his battle-lust and need for glory. This is of a piece with a lot of Lester's work, where the futility of combat is shown through absurd humor. That's a lot to unpack for what is essentially a trifle, but this unexpected, bittersweet depth is what makes Robin and Marian such a pleasure.

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