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A modern message

March 03, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Robin Hood has been eternally returning, in song, on stage, on the page and on screens big and small for something close to a millennium now. He's been many things over the years, a folkloric May King, a robber rogue, a defender of the weak. For modern purposes, he's the archetype of a kind of radical noblesse oblige, the hero who dispossesses himself of worldly comfort in the name of moral purity and social reform, who lives outside the law in order to be honest.

His latest iteration, the U.K.-produced "Robin Hood," premieres locally tonight on BBC America and, as is often the case in such things, it is as much about us as about him; the early episodes at least take what feels like a real delight in drawing parallels to current political realities. (The main writer is Dominic Minghella, younger brother of Anthony.) As in sundry tellings past, Robin (Jonas Armstrong) has returned from the Crusades -- here accompanied by his fussy, fussing sidekick-servant Much (Sam Troughton) -- to find his ancestral lands in the greedy grip of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen) and his lieutenant Guy of Gisborne (smoldering Richard Armitage), and the local economy stagnant from excessive taxation of the working class.

"The king needs funds to fight our holy war," says the sheriff.

"Is it our holy war?" asks Robin. "Or is it Pope Gregory's?" Or George Bush's. If you see what I mean.

Or consider this exchange:

"I understand the king is winning, thanks be to God," says Guy of Gisborne.

"He's killing more people," says Robin.

"Is that not winning?"

"Show me an argument ever settled with bloodshed, and then I'll call it winning."

"Robin Hood" boasts most of the usual problems with low-budget epics. Nottingham is astonishingly underpopulated; Robin's men (who are not called Merry here, though they are not beyond a jape, a jest or ironic passing remark) and the sheriff's seem somewhat less numerous than the Sharks and the Jets. It's a little over-plotted at times, which means that its characters do not always act with common sense. But the show has wit and energy, and the hills of Hungary, where it was filmed, make as good or better a Sherwood Forest as the Santa Monica Mountains ever did. The 12-year-old boy in me -- who, I will admit, lives alarmingly close to the surface -- did not hesitate to watch the four hours provided for review at a straight clip. But the older person who contains him had a good time too.

Lean and lithe, Armstrong (born 1981) has a kind of late Britpop quality -- by which I mean that in trying to figure out whom he reminded me of, I could come up only with Blur's Damon Albarn. In any case, he is an attractive lead, perhaps a little too given to the wry smile in a tough situation but solid enough to seem a convincing leader of men. ("How hot is Jonas," JustMyLuck wonders/declares on an Internet message board. "HE IS HOT HOT HOT," says hellosunshine.) He carries a Saracen bow that has power in its curves and a Saracen sword that sings like crystal, and he quotes the Koran: "For every man there is a purpose that he sets up in his life; let yours be the doing of all good deeds." ("That's us, lads," he adds.)

Allen plays the Sheriff of Nottingham with something of the arch feyness of a jaded former glam rocker. He is a bad, bad man who crushes budgies to relieve stress. Even his pajamas are black. His scenes with Armstrong are the real meat of the show, and their dialectical conversations -- they talk a lot, in surprising places and on interestingly intimate terms -- are what most set this production apart.

Take from the rich, give to the poor -- we understand instinctively that this is just, even if we don't live it, or vote for it. But it's what keeps us calling Robin Hood back.


`Robin Hood'

Where: BBC America

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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