I have a confession to make: I really kind of liked the new 2018 Robin Hood movie.
I know, I know, it wasn’t very good, objectively speaking, but it wasn’t horribly bad – again, objectively speaking. At the very least it managed to be entertaining, introduce some engaging characters and warrant an overall good time – which is more than I can say for many movies that weren’t so badly panned by critics and audiences alike. The effects were fine, the ideas were interesting, and while the whole thing was a little rushed I quite enjoyed what everyone else seem to have hated: the awkward historically incorrect designs.
What can I say, while I try to like only good movies, my conscience is always a bit muddled – this is definitely going to be a guilty pleasure of mine. But… I am not going to write a long entry defending it or going on about the art of adaptation and freedoms that can, or perhaps should, be taken.
Instead, I’m going to focus on a single aspect of it that got me intrigued as both a movie goer and a curious person: the treatment of the character of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Why him? Well, more so than other Robin Hood characters, the Sheriff seems to morph from one incarnation to a completely different one from movie to movie. Nearly absent from the original story, the writing and the performance of the Sheriff is left very much to the cast and the crew of the current adaptation. And watching Robin Hood 2018 I couldn’t help but enjoy how different the new take on the Sheriff was, and how an old as time tale was freshened up by giving a new groove to an old character.
And so I thought, what better way to explore this phenomenon of writing the same character in a completely different fashion, but by comparing the new Sheriff to my favorite old Sheriff – the One and Only George, played by the unforgettable Alan Rickman in the 1991 adaptation The Prince of Thieves?
So without further ado, let us arrange a little showdown – one between the old George and new Orson – yes, I’m just calling him Orson, you’ll see why later – and explore how different they are while pitting them against each other in an ultimate battle of the… uhm, Sheriffs, I guess.
Oh, um right:
Here I can actually promise I am going to be completely unbiased because we’re talking about two of my almost hands down favorite actors of… possibly all times.
Alan Rickman’s performance is not only superb, but actually sort of revolutionary in the world of film making at the time. The Sheriff of Nottingham is very much an actor’s role see as the original book barely establishes him as an existing character, and in it he’s actually given a very small role. Still, up until the Prince of Thieves there was a certain style and expectation to how the Sheriff is to be portrayed and how he is to work off the characters of Robin Hood, Maid Marian and of course Prince John, his superior.
His flamboyant, camp and endlessly over the top chew-the-scenery performance was a great gamble alone. And then the writers decided to not only remove the character of Prince John and sort of merge these two into a single central villain… but also give him an actual witch as a sidekick. Leaving out beloved characters and bringing elements of fantasy and magic into a classic historical tale regarded to be a true story would be a considerable risk even today, let alone in 1991.
But it was a risk that paid and keeps returning.
Alan Rickman’s brilliance not only gave us the most memorable, most camp and deliciously evil Sheriff, but also inspired numerous critics to claim it’s the Sheriff who is a true thief in Prince of Thieves, because he steals every scene he’s in. Rickman’s Sheriff plays out as if he belongs to a completely different movie and makes you wish that was the movie you were watching. Rickman moves as if he owns the production very much exactly as the Sheriff is written to move as if he owns Nottingham. The moment he’s not on screen you want him back instead of being forced to endure other, generally downplayed characters and wait out the slow pace of the movie. There’s even an unconfirmed yet likely true rumor Kevin Costner edited the movie himself, making sure several scenes with the Sheriff remain safe on the cutting room floor because he felt Alan Rickman overshadowed his performance.
Yes, Alan Rickman was that good, and numerous Internet memes and an endless supply of fresh fan art and fan fiction are to make sure his unforgettable performance keeps on inspiring even after the great man is gone.
In Robin Hood: Origins, Ben Mendelsohn handles a completely different task: in a dynamic, fast-paced action movie he needs to make sure the slower-paced scenes of dialogue and political exchanges that are the gist of his character’s involvement don’t end up being dull and uninteresting in comparison.
And boy does he deliver.
No one yells, hisses and spits quite like Ben Mendelsohn, and in the role of the Sheriff he superbly makes up in erupting emotion what other characters get to do with flamboyant action. And while he is eternally over the top, he’s never laughable nor does he step outside the constraints of the script. Every time the Sheriff loses it, Mendelsohn makes sure you don’t lose sight of the place he’s coming from. Unlike the camp and flamboyant George who owns Nottingham as much as he owns the stage, Mendelsohn’s Sheriff is at the same time unhinged and bridled; harboring a dichotomy of a bullied bully, dangerously evil and loving it about as much he’s terrified of it. Mendelsohn manages to brilliantly layer expressions in order to portray the character’s divide. At a first glance he is perfect, but at a closer look it seems like every gesture of hand, every wrinkle of skin, every strand of hair is in a perfectly pre-planned position. Which remarkably fits the character almost more perfectly than it should.
What can I say but one point each goes to Slytherin.
>>>>> George 1 – Orson 1
While we’re at it, let’s look at another fairly technical detail: the appearance and dress of our not-so-good Sheriff. Which one holds up better in the context of the movie, the times, and the character himself?
Alan Rickman’s Sheriff – George – looks as extravagantly unfitting and flamboyant as Rickman’s performance. While this design of the Sheriff – all in black, thin, bush of wild hair, uneven beard – was widely original at the time, it worked because it somehow still fit perfectly both with the rest of the movie as well as the 14th century period it was supposed to represent. It was outrageous enough to reflect the Sheriff’s equally outrageous character, sinister enough to constantly remind us he’s the villain, but still historically accurate enough to not raise too many eyebrows. It was also design Alan Rickman had a lot to do with, as he “didn’t want the film to disappear into all that historical business.”
Ben Mendelsohn’s Sheriff… give it a break, people, he looks perfectly in tune with the movie he’s in, and yes, I’ll fight you on that. Robin Hood: Origins was panned by the critics and audiences alike for looking nothing like the period it was supposedly set in; but the movie wasn’t visually set in the period. The movie made no “mistakes” in character design in regard to clothes and haircuts of 12th century. Rather, it made it’s designs deliberately removed from historical accuracy. It was aiming for a sort of a crossover between Robin Hood and Assassin’s Creed rather than a period piece, and in that sense the designs are fine.
In that sense, Mendelsohn’s Sheriff looks exactly as he should: a combination of “hipster suave” and “bad ass mobster” on a man who’s not really capable to wear either. The light metallic grey reflects a sort of lack of humanity, wrapping him in protective titanium coating you’ll quickly realize he very likely feels he needs.
Another interesting thing with a light coloring on the villain is that it wonderfully contrasts him against the cliche dark coloring of other villains, be it in this movie or general art. And it’s also doing a great job making the Sheriff stand out in every scene so you always know where to look when he’s on screen.
I would say this was, in the context of the movie, a design that matches both the perfection and the outrageous shift from the norm that was Alan Rickman’s Sheriff in 1991. I would say that, if there wasn’t for this guy:
In 2016 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Ben Mendelsohn portrayed the character of Imperial Director Orson Krennic, the man behind the construction of the Death Star. Flamboyant and self-obsessed, Krennic stands out from the endless array of other Imperial officials by… you see where this is going, looking pretty much exactly like The Sheriff in Robin Hood 2018 does.
And not only is it the same actor, not only is he wearing nearly exactly the same haircut, not only is he wearing an incredibly similar set of clothes, not only are the two unrelated characters alike in way more than a few respects, not only is the general conflict – racing against time and abuse of the cruel superiors – very much the same… but all of this is delivered to audiences only two years apart.
And while I’m guilty of enjoying this literal charactercasting of Ben Mendelsohn simply because he’s so good at it and such a joy to watch, I do recognize this shouldn’t be so easily let off. Maybe if this was twelve years ago, I’d be inclined to say it’s OK, I love seeing him like this again, but it was only two years ago.
Maybe this sounds petty, but I’m not going to give it a pass: if Orson Krennic wears white and you don’t want your villain to be cliche black, there’s literally the rest of the whole spectrum at your disposal. Make it happen!
Just don’t put a mustache on him next time. If Ben Mendelsohn was ever to be seen with a mustache in a serious, big production, the opportunity should have been taken that one time when he was an actual Disney villain.
So, on account of originality and daring, a point goes to George.
>>>> George 2 – Orson 1
The Origin Story
While the origin story of a villain isn’t a necessity, it does help ground the character, aids understanding of his motives and lets us connect at a deeper level. But then, there is such a thing as too much backstory which can work against the character, especially a villainous one, and water down the mystery as well as the threat we should be feeling. So let us dig in and see how well do the Sheriff backstories fare in finding the middle ground of not saying too little, or too much, but keeping it just right.
The origin story of George is deliberately muddled. It serves to add to the mystery of the character as well as keeping the viewer continuously intrigued while at the same time creating some substantial humor in it’s delivery. Wow that’s a mouthful. But so’s the brilliance of it! The interesting thing is, there are actually two versions of George’s backstory.
In the theatrical cut of Prince of Thieves George’s background remains a mystery and it is unclear if this man is a commoner or a noble, leaving us baffled to who the heck assigned this outrageous, unstable man to a position of substantial power. Until a hilarious exchange with a scared orphaned girl whom he tells he had a terrible childhood, and it’s a wonder he’s sane. And then proceeds to inform the child he’ll tell her about it sometime.
The scene is about as hilarious as it is twisted, and it is also all the information we get. But the set up and his display of near kindness to the orphans (whom the threatens to kill only seconds later) suggests his childhood may have had something to do with the orphanage. The delivery allows us to understand origins of his insanity while giving us no definite information about his background and keeping us intrigued: just perfect.
In the director’s cut, George’s origin story is expanded to reveal the Witch, who serves as his trusted sidekick as well as a mentor, is actually his mother. He seems to have not known this prior to the reveal, and is rather distressed to learn this information and turns cruel to the woman who expects him to react with kindness and possibly affection.
This clever bit of writing informs us further of Sheriff’s character through his reaction, but actually opens more intriguing questions about this world. What does it mean that his mother is a witch? Is she an actual witch, with actual magical powers, or is she just a smart woman who can tinker with herbs and chemicals? Is there magic in this world? These things are deliberately kept vague and work to draw us more into the story and let out imaginations fill in the gaps.
However, while interesting, the extra detail with the witch is also unnecessary and sort of distracting, so the decision to leave it for the director’s cut was well placed: George’s backstory is just right as it is.
The 2018 Sheriff boasts a completely different approach: he blurts out his own detailed backstory in form of a narrative.
Now, while in movies it is preferable to show not tell, this isn’t necessarily badly executed. The scene of the reveal creates enough of an emotional momentum, and Mendelsohn’s pitch perfect performance manages to blend Sheriff’s outrage at the situation with an attempt to somehow connect with another human being at a more personal level. In addition, Taron Egerton playing Robin Hood is pitch perfect reflecting emotion the audience should feel, so I didn’t really feel like I was short-changed for a show instead of tell.
However, there are problems.
The first one comes from the fact the entire movie is extremely rushed. While the Sheriff’s reveal should read like an insulated man’s attempt to make a friend, we didn’t get anywhere near spending enough time with him to really feel it. Even worse, Robin also didn’t spend enough time with him to warrant the Sheriff allowing this moment of vulnerability. Sadly this makes the Sheriff read a lot more like a trusting fool and the exposition tool guy than anything else.
The second problem is in the actual writing of the backstory itself. The idea that the Sheriff is an abused orphan who grew ruthless by having to climb the hierarchical ladder with his own two hands while at the same time being exploited by the higher-ups for the easily manipulated scared man he grew up to be is a very interesting and innovative approach to the character. It explores themes of how violence breeds violence, how there’s always a bigger bully, how the establishment works to create obedient subjects.
However, it fails at delivery. The Sheriff describes how nobles would come to the orphanage to… have wild parties of beating up the kids. Really? After a nice meal of boiled beef? Not just one, or two of them, literally all of the nobles of Nottingham indulged in this hobby? They financed the orphanage so they’d have somewhere to go and have kids-beating parties? Don’t get me wrong, I see where this movie is going with it’s message, but when you make an image like this into a caricature, it doesn’t land well.
Sheriff’s descriptions combined with his facial expressions are nauseating to be sure, but they don’t help the feeling of “really? That’s what we’re going with?” from setting in. And as he goes on about the brandy and the broomsticks, it’s a bit hard not to laugh while feeling dirty for it at the same time.
Actually, I have a confession to make at this point. Up until the ending, where the clumsy reveal of this backstory to a man he barely knows comes back to bite him in the butt, I honestly thought he was lying. The implausibility of the story combined with the implausibility he’d even open up at all made me think he was actually lying to Robin to gain his trust and possibly hiding some sort of a more devastating reveal. Ha! Seems I was wrong after all, that was what they were going with. And yes, at the ending, when the Sheriff does get a little heartbreak when it’s repeated to him, and where I was supposed to feel for him a little; I couldn’t help but think:
Sorry, 2018 movie: while you sport a great idea, you didn’t take time to execute it properly. The point goes to George.
>>>> George 3 – Orson 1
The Memorable Lines
The Level of Threat
The primary task of every good villain is to create a viable threat for our heroes to go up against.
I vividly remember an interview with Geoffrey Rush of the Pirates of the Caribbean who portrayed the villainous character of Captain Hector Barbossa. During the production, Rush expressed his concerns to how will the considerably aged Barbossa hold up against the youthful protagonists in a swashbuckling adventure. In his musing, he came up with a salvaging idea: let’s make Barbossa a crack swordsman whose experience and skill put him on pair with his enemies.
A similar route was employed with Alan Rickman’s version of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Standing at 185 cm tall, the unhinged a force to be reckoned with when he grabs a weapon. Repeated scenes of him handling and mercilessly using various knives and swords – usually against his own men – serve to seal in our minds just how bad ass and how actually dangerous he is. Add to that his insanely unhinged behavior and you feel terrified every time one of our heroes has to face down with him.
Actually, forget fight scenes: even the scene where he’s wooing Marian by offering a gift is out there considering just what the gift is.
By the time of the final showdown of the hero and the villain, we feel they’re well matched and are at the edge of our seats! Sure we get a lot of scenes of how Costner’s Robin Hood is an amazing shot and a great fighter, but by the end, one on one, they’re pretty evenly matched – in one of epic movie battles of it’s time.
Ben Mendelsohn’s Sheriff… is portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn.
Standing barely 5 cm shorter than Alan Rickman, Ben Mendelsohn, as such, doesn’t sport a fraction of his menacing and commanding presence. I’m sorry, as much as I like his acting, the man looks like pretty much anyone could just slap him around and send him home.
Which, in this movie, quite a few people actually do! He gets abused by most of his superiors, he gets cheek from his political opponents, and is all together pretty helpless. It doesn’t help that his Robin Hood is pretty much the Legolas of Sherwood Forest, firing five arrows at a time and scaling several stories tall buildings faster than late Ueli Steck. Yes, you’re guessing their final confrontation doesn’t really leave us guessing who’s going to prevail.
Buut… That’s not to say his Sheriff isn’t a threatening character. Smart writing combined with Mendelsohn’s great acting paint a picture of a man whose weakness creates an underlying current of despair which builds him up as a man capable of literally anything. Sure, he isn’t a crack fighter himself, but he has a large army of well equipped soldiers at his beck and call. Sure his bearing with a little letter opener dagger he intends to kill Tuck with is a bit lame, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind he’d do it. Sure he wouldn’t last 5 seconds against John, but he knows to face him down while tied up and helpless and wound him psychologically. He’s not a big scary skillful presence, but he does manage to relay dangerous and hurtful just fine!
But there is even more to him than just that. While George is motivated by ambition, this guy is fueled by pure despair. He is fully aware that should he fail his service, it is not only his position but also his life. He has come from nothing, and he has nothing to fall back on; he is as much a prisoner as he is “law and order”- by the way, this cleverly suggested by shots of him in his cage-like carriage – and he will fight to the death to achieve his goals – not only because he wants to, but more so because he has no choice.
So while he isn’t capable of creating a sense of physical threat, the new Sheriff relies on his power and influence to get us concerned about just what might happen to our protagonists. After all, at the beginning of the movie he ruins Rob’s entire life with a single signature… and unhinged and angry as he gets in his determination to survive, there’s no telling what he might sign next. Maybe even an order to send Marian off to the Arabs as a breeding mare.
So, while George is definitely a more threatening villain one on one, the new Sheriff manages quite serviceable villainy from a different and, in my opinion, no less successful angle. Can’t help but make this a tie.
>>>> George 4 – Orson 2
While this might sound like a strange thing to compare, I feel I really should go “there”. Not only because of how different the characters are, but also how superb it’s employment is in deepening the characters themselves.
Also, I’m the first to dismiss sexuality, love subplots and sex as generally among storytelling cheap gimmicks to get us to expressly like or hate characters in question and save the writers some real character development. Since it’s not so with the Sheriff of Nottingham, let’s explore how this can be utilized in the right way!
George’s raving sexuality ravishingly adds to the humor of the piece as well as it lays an extra dimension to the Sheriff’s beautiful insanity. Resulting in what’s likely the only honestly hilarious rape sequence in history of… humanity, it also breeds iconic exchanges with random women:
You. My room. 10:30 tonight.
You. 10:45… And bring a friend.– Alan Rickman in The Prince of Thieves, 1991
We’re led to believe there seem to be a lot of these exchanges, because when George’s down time gets interrupted he is usually in company of a woman who’s in the process of undressing, again resulting in even more hilarity.
But while he certainly does not abstain, George’s main target is Maid Marian whom he blackmails into marriage by threatening murder of orphans and Robin Hood after he fails to woo her. Exchanges between Marian and George are oozing with his acute sexuality as well as radiating brilliant chemistry between two superb actors who manage to create a sinister and simultaneously hilarious air between themselves. And I know everyone will say the Sheriff steals the scene, but Marian’s ability to be visibly annoyed by this man while always subtly reminding the audience how cautious and scared of him she really is definitely works as a stroke of brilliance by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
But making the audience laugh isn’t the only purpose of the Sheriff’s raging testosterone levels: it serves to paint the Sheriff as very much, very deeply human. Yes, he is considerably insane and endlessly cruel with shocking disregard for life, but underneath all that is a current that urges for something different, as if raving sexuality is a perverted expression of a deep need to find some kind of connection, maybe? This whole barely visible subplot culminates in a grotesquely perverted scene of a wedding conducted by a Bishop in the presence of a Witch where the Sheriff refuses to consume his wife before the ceremony is concluded because for once in his life, he wants to have something pure.
Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely no heart of gold in this Beast, but there definitely is a heart there.
Ben Mendelsohn’s Sheriff is, in complete and almost baffling contrast, completely asexual.
As the 2018 movie focuses on a love triangle between Robin, Marian and Will Scarlet, the Sheriff is written as disinterested in Marian, thereby wisely preventing a nauseating clutter of subplots. But, taking a deeper dive into their relationship, he is actually more than just disinterested: in their exchanges, he firmly assumes position of an adult talking to a child.
Marian’s lack of capacity to even piss him off reads clearly as complete dismissal of her political relevance instead of susceptibility to the young woman’s charms. An interesting exchange occurs when he calls her “a sweet scourge of many a Town Hall meeting” with a bit of a smile that pans sideways, seemingly so he doesn’t have to face her while delivering this insult packed as a compliment. Essentially she’s a meddlesome child, yes, but his mannerisms suggest a man who isn’t exactly comfortable or confident around women. Not even children women. Actually, the Sheriff plays up the age rift a lot, also often referring to Robin as “youth” or “boy” whereas he is clearly in his thirties. He’s hell bent on using the impeccable salt-and-pepper trimming as an authority asserting tool. In regard to Marian, this serves more to deepen the ditch between an adult and a child than to depict him as a possibly dirty old man. It’s not even an afterthought: the one time he does make a sexually charged threat toward Marian, it’s away from her presence and it doesn’t involve himas being the one to do it.
In addition, he is never shown to display any interest in female company, or male for that matter, furthering the sense of his personal detachment from humanity. The whole situation nearly goes under the radar, but still subtly illustrates how isolated and damaged the character is, painting broad strokes of an insecure, deeply terrified man who feels truly safe only when alone. Sexuality, regardless of the scenario, inevitably does take two to tango and this man isn’t about to let anyone in.
While George is definitely winning points in amusement, Mendelsohn’s Sheriff is doing his thing absolutely superbly and to the point, and… I am going to say in a way that’s a bit more difficult to do well. So a point actually goes to his Sheriff:
>>>> George 3 – Orson 2
~~ To be continued