If older-man/younger-woman matchups make a lot of people uncomfortable, the older-man/much-younger-woman 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? More to the point, 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 fifty, reportedly in the arms of his seventeen-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, in a wily, multi-layered performance), Beverly's mother, wears an expression of maternal concern, though her self-serving motives become increasingly clear. Then the story flashes back to Beverly's first meeting with Flynn (Kline), a self-described devil with an unapologetic taste for the ladies. He spots her on the lot — she's in the chorus of a Gene Kelly movie — and, in this film's most sinister moment, sends his pal, costume designer Orry Kelly (Bryan Batt), to fetch her. He flatters her, offers her an audition, takes her to his bachelor-pad mansion and, in what can only be described as an instance of date rape, forces himself on her.
Flynn, as it turns out, is truly taken with Beverly. (He'd also presumed she was eighteen.) 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 — who anchors the movie, swan-diving into Flynn's complexities without making excuses for him — 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, treating her to nights on the town as her daughter's chaperone, though he always finds ways to get Beverly alone behind closed doors.
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 has the demeanor of a grave elf. She's neither conniver nor naïf; rather, she's a young woman who fell into a relationship that many would call ill-advised.