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Beowulf and Grendel poster

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Beowulf & Grendel
cast: Gerard Butler, Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, Sarah Polley, Stellan Skarsgård, and Eddie Marsan

director: Sturla Gunnarsson

100 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 16:9
Starz DVD Region 2 retail
[released 24 December]

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
With the hype surrounding Robert Zemeckis' animated Beowulf still ringing in our ears, now is clearly a good time for studios to release any adaptations of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem they might have lying around. However, despite clearly being released as a Christmas season cash in, Sturla Gunnarsson's Beowulf & Grendel is a surprisingly solid piece of work that not only puts an intelligent spin on the source material but also manages to be a really excellent Viking movie to boot.

Beowulf (Gerard Butler) is a Dane living among the Geats of Sweden. The Geats are a people now largely airbrushed from history and at the time their renown was clearly not much better, prompting the king of the Geats to dispatch 12 of his finest men and the hero Beowulf to deal with a troll (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) despoiling the lands of Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård), king of the Danes. Upon arriving in Denmark Beowulf finds not a mindless monster but a beast in the process of exacting revenge for the death of his father at the hands of Hrothgar.

This puts Beowulf in an awkward position as, on the one hand, he is a hero sworn to save Denmark, but on the other he can understand the witch Selma (Sarah Polley) when she argues that Grendel is more wronged than wrong. Nonetheless, Beowulf and his men provoke the poor troll into attacking and manage to kill him, prompting an attack by his mother, which is also dealt with by Beowulf. However, upon leaving Denmark, Beowulf learns that his foolishly 'heroic' actions might well have set him on the same path as that of the drunken embittered old king Hrothgar.

One of the interesting things about Beowulf is that, while it may be the oldest surviving piece of English writing, it only really came to be considered as a piece of literature (rather than a historical document) with the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1936 essay Beowulf: The Monster And The Critics. So while Beowulf might well have been written between the fifth and tenth centuries, it is in many ways a product of the modern age... its true meanings are still being debated and there is no true consensus regarding translation. Compare this to the Greek epic poems that have been written about and analysed for as long as there has been an academia and Beowulf immediately seems much more fluid and open to interpretation.

Writer Andrew Rei Burzins and director Sturla Gunnarson make the interesting decision to interpret the poem not as an epic tale of heroism and bravery but rather as a discussion of the nature of the hero and the death of the heroic lifestyle with the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia.

Beowulf is a product of his environment. He is a warrior and a hero, and he defines himself entirely in those terms. It is a lifestyle. We know this because he encounters a fisherman early on who discusses what it's like being a hero as though it were a job rather than an expression of personal worth. Beowulf is not better than the fisherman... he's just different. However, Beowulf, his followers and the ruling classes of Denmark and Geatland do not see it that way. For them, life is all about glory and gold and victory.

When Beowulf arrives in Denmark, he fully expects to have more hero work to do. He has heard tale of a troll attacking Hrothgar's mead-hall and he intends to kill it. However, the situation is more complex than this and Beowulf slowly comes to learn this through talking with former prostitute turned outsider and witch Selma. Selma exists outside of heroic society and therefore realises that this is not a case of a monster killing the innocent, but of a social outsider; a massive, simple-minded and deformed man referred to as a 'troll' trying to exact the blood debt he has towards Hrothgar following the King's decision to murder his father simply for coming across his path. Indeed, Grendel, though wild and untamed, is a honourable man. For, while he raped Selma, he realised his error and decided to protect her against the other men who would rape her. By choosing to kill Grendel and his mother, Beowulf has not been heroic, he has simply made the same mistake that Hrothgar made and killed the father and grandmother of a child who will want vengeance of his own.

In effect, Beowulf & Grendel is a film that critiques the moral simplicity of the fantasy epic and does so by driving home the realities of the Viking society that Beowulf lives in. He is not a great hero who does noting but good, he is like many Viking warriors, a man quick to act and to use the sword when other forms of conflict resolution would have better served everyone.

There's also a nice little series of vignettes relating to Christianity's increasing presence in Scandinavia and its ultimate consumption of the Viking way of life. In one particularly memorable scene, Hrothgar has himself baptised because that way he knows he will be forgiven... without it he would be incapable of dealing with the guilt he feels from the results of his 'heroic' youth.

Visually, Beowulf & Grendel is fantastic. The production wisely decided to shoot in Iceland and as a result the film looks the way a Viking story should. The costumes are nifty too, and the warriors even wear proper Sutton Hoo-style helmets. Iceland's beautiful but wild and bleak landscape not only gives the piece a gritty and sombre mood but actually seems to suffuse the performances too. Butler, best known for shouting "Spartaaaaaaa!" in 300 is a real physical presence and nicely conveys the idea of a man who has chosen to become a hero but who also has the intelligence to question the morality of the heroic lifestyle. Though ably supported by Skarsgård and Polley, the film really is Butler's, and it's no surprise that he made the leap up to big Hollywood films on the basis of his performance here.

Audially, the film fares less well as it is full of a bewildering array of Scottish, English, Irish and even Canadian accents which might very well sound 'fantasy-ish' to an American audience but here they feel just slightly wrong. Similarly, the dialogue veers from the earthy (Selma asks Beowulf if he's come to visit her with her cunt in mind), to bizarre high-fantasy ("where did that have its birth?" asks a slapped Beowulf). When it is kept simple the dialogue works but the more elaborate it becomes, the more it jars.

In conclusion, Beowulf & Grendel is that most rare of cinematic beasts... a proper Viking movie. It is intelligent, subtle, well constructed and exciting. It also looks amazing. A few minor dialogue-related caveats aside, this is arguably a better film than Robert Zemeckis' adaptation.

The DVD comes with storyboard artwork and costume artwork as well as interviews with the stars and crew. It also has a short behind-the-scenes documentary shot during a day when filming was nearly shut down by hurricane-strength winds. Not massively interesting in its own right, I can't help but wonder if this documentary wasn't the result of the producer deciding to film all the decision making 'for insurance purposes' just in case the wind blew down the mead hall or something like that. A worthy attempt at proper extras but ultimately, there's not enough here to keep you interested for long.

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