The Last of Robin Hood Wrestles with a Star's Underage Love
If older man/younger women matchups make many people uncomfortable, the older man/much younger women combo tends to make them apoplectic. It would be impossible for Nabokov to publish Lolita today, now that all of life, and all of art, must be arranged, categorized and restricted as a way of protecting not just our children but also our own easily offended sensibilities. Lolita is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, but Lolita is, at least, a work of fiction. What are we to make of a 48-year-old man who takes up with an underage girl in real life? How do you make a movie about it without being either sensationalistic or moralistic?
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland pull it off in The Last of Robin Hood, which covers the final two years in the life of Errol Flynn, who died in 1959, at age 50, reportedly in the arms of his 17-year-old lover, a sometime actress and dancer named Beverly Aadland. At the time, the press splashed out all the tawdry details; tabloids today would have an even bigger field day. But Glatzer and Westmoreland don't milk scandal for moral purpose. Instead, they allow their actors — Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning and Susan Sarandon — the space and freedom to give shape to a story that's less about victimization than about the complexities of feeling and sexual desire.
The movie opens with the news of Flynn's death. Reporters swarm an airport, awaiting the arrival of the woman who was with him when he died: Fanning's Beverly, a self-aware moon child with candy-floss hair, steps from the aircraft and blinks at the scene in front of her, clearly distressed. A middle-aged woman waves and calls to her, as if she, like the hungry reporters, were currying the girl's favor: Florence Aadland (Sarandon), Beverly's mother, wears an expression of maternal concern, though her self-serving motives become increasingly clear. Eventually, she'll be the one to blab the story of Beverly's two-year relationship with Flynn.
The story flashes back to Beverly's first meeting with Flynn (Kline), a self-described devil with an unapologetic taste for the ladies, often very young ones. Beverly has been in show business for years — she looks older than her 15 years, and she's been known to lie about her age. Flynn spots her on the lot and sends his pal, costume designer Orry Kelly (Bryan Batt), to fetch her. He flatters her and offers her an audition, which turns out to be — no surprise — hardly an audition at all. He brings her to his bachelor-pad mansion and, in what can only be described as an instance of date rape, forces himself on her. She cries in the backseat as she's driven home.
Flynn is truly taken with Beverly. (He'd also presumed she was 18.) The next day, he sees her and pursues her again, trailing her with apologies. She stands her ground, knowing she's been taken advantage of. You can disapprove of what comes next, but as Fanning and Kline play it, it's so believable it defies moral judgment: Beverly falls in love with Flynn, and as a means of ensuring that their relationship can continue, he (platonically) woos Florence, too.
The Last of Robin Hood makes the case that Beverly Aadland — who died in 2010, at age 67 — was damaged more by her mother, who used her daughter's "fame" to grab the spotlight for herself, than by Flynn. The tenderness between Flynn and Beverly, as they're played here, feels genuine: As Beverly, Fanning is neither conniver nor naif — she's a young woman who fell into a relationship that many would call ill-advised.
But it's Kline who anchors the movie, swan-diving into Flynn's complexities without making excuses for him. Kline is a star born in the wrong time, perhaps, too debonair for an era in which the most elegant, romantic characters we can think of spring from comic books. Kline plays Flynn as a guy freewheeling his way, fast, through life, but who was nonetheless capable of being surprised by love. Would you trust him alone with your young daughter? Certainly not, though who could blame her for being captivated?
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