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 isn’t a brief in favor of child abuse, but it’s not a moral screed against it, either: It’s a complicated, tragic love story in which the victimizer suffers at least as much anguish as the victim does, and probably more. That idea 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 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 on all the tawdry details; tabloids today would have an even bigger field day. But Glatzer and Westmoreland — perhaps best known for the 2006 drama Quinceañera, in which a girl discovers she’s pregnant on the eve of her 15th birthday — 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. Like Lolita, it’s a love story, one that acknowledges there’s a cost attached to love — if it cost us nothing, it would be worth nothing.
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, multilayered performance), 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, while her daughter mutely struggles to preserve her own privacy.
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 to get dancing gigs in Las Vegas. Flynn 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 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. As she’s driven home by Flynn’s assistant, Beverly cries in the back seat, a moment that feels true to the experience of the real-life Aadland, as she described it in People magazine in 1988: “I felt used and abused, but I also felt, hey, I’m grown-up now.”
Flynn, as it turns out, 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, treating her to nights on the town as her daughter’s chaperone, though he always finds ways to get Beverly alone behind closed doors.
In one regard, Flynn’s passion for Beverly proves love’s blindness: He strives to build a career for her, even though she has zero acting talent. In the end, he’s forced to create a vehicle just for her, a misguided, pseudopolitical oddity called Cuban Rebel Girls, in which he also appears. (It was his last film.) Flynn also hoped to star as Humbert Humbert in the film version of Lolita, with Beverly co-starring as you-know-who. The movie includes a scene in which Flynn earnestly tries to persuade Stanley Kubrick (Max Casella) what a brilliant duo he and Beverly would make on-screen. Kubrick, of course, is having none of it.
The Last of Robin Hood makes the case that Beverly Aadland — who died in 2010, at 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 — Flynn’s nickname for her, in fact, was Woodsey, because she reminded him of a little wood sprite. She’s neither conniver nor naïf — she’s a young woman who fell into a relationship that many would call ill-advised, but she’s hardly the first or the last person to do so.
But it’s Kline who anchors the movie, swan-diving into Flynn’s complexities without making excuses for him. Kline has had a successful enough career, yet we haven’t been able to see enough of him. He’s 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 was born to wear that little Errol Flynn mustache, so delicately and meticulously shaped, like a trim black seagull on the wing. (He’s already played another swashbuckling legend, Douglas Fairbanks, in 1992’s Chaplin.) Here, looking completely at home with an ascot tied jauntily at the throat, he radiates a joyous, not-ungenerous hedonism. You could accurately call Flynn a womanizer — but then, what is a womanizer, exactly? A man who goes out with lots of women, serially? Who woos them by making them feel good about themselves? Who “takes advantage” of women, as if they were delicate flowers incapable of thinking or feeling for themselves? 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? In this day and age especially, a good roué is hard to find.