Beowulf and Grendel: heroic epic

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 10, 2006 | Publication: Halifax Herald | Author: STEPHEN PEDERSEN Arts Reporter
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WE ALL KNOW the story of Beowulf, the hero from Geatland who rescued Danish King Hrothgar by destroying the monster Grendel and his mother. We know how Grendel had savagely slaughtered Hrothgar’s thanes celebrating in the great Hall of Heorot, how Beowulf tackled him, disdaining any kind of weapon in his sense of fairness, ripped out his arm and later tracked him to his cave where he fought and killed his ferocious mother over the monster’s dead body.

Throughout the 1950s and well into the ’70s, the Anglo Saxon epic of Beowulf, written between the seventh and 10th centuries, has marked the beginning of English literature. Freshman university English lit survey courses ranged "from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot" for uncountable numbers of undergraduates.

Usually you had to take a senior level English course to study Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon, the earliest known example of the language (Old English), before proceeding to Chaucer (Middle English) and thence to Shakespeare (Modern English).

To give you an idea of the challenge Anglo-Saxon presents, the opening of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon runs like this: "Hwaet we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum/(th)eod-cyninga (th)rym gefurnon,/hu tha ae(th)elingas ellen fremedon. . . ." You can see the problem.

Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s superb 2000 translation into modern English (Norton) rendered the opening thus: "So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by/and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness./We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. . . ."

Something obscure happened to the original Viking epic in the so-called Dark Ages. It encountered Christianity at some point. And the unknown poet who set it down probably recast it as a Christian allegory of good and evil — Grendel with the mark of Cain, Beowulf something of a devout knight who could taken a seat at King Arthur’s Round Table.

In his stunningly photographed film, set among the breathtaking fantasia of Iceland’s bays, beaches and volcanic mountains, Sturla Gunnarsson has given us a Beowulf and Grendel as what he imagines the pre-Christian epic to have been. Christianity is still in the missionary stage. An Irish priest begins to baptize the Danes. But Beowulf, though personally saturated with Christian values of compassion and Arthurian standards of valour, acquired them elsewhere. He ironically dismisses conversion.

The language contrived for the screenplay by writer Andrew Rai Berzins steps lightly over the rhetoric of royal pomp and circumstance despite the heroic theme. It is earthy and vulgar in all senses of the word — ie. both "common" and "crudely indecent" (see

Butler’s accent is softly Scottish, and the mainly male society is patterned after pub culture — a lot of beer is consumed, and one-liners are tossed off as they are among musicians hanging out after a rehearsal or a sports team after winning a game — happy, tired, witty and somewhat foul.

Sarah Polley’s comeliness as the witch Selma, who has befriended Grendel, does try our willing suspension of disbelief, but Gunnarsson does not allow it to blossom into anachronistic romance, for which we are grateful. Selma’s claim to influence over the Danes is her ability to "see" how they die.

Butler is a winning hero in the Braveheart mode. But Beowulf is more complex, less focused on victory or defeat. His curiosity to know how Grendel came to be a monster with a mission to murder and dismember offends the Danes, who simply want to be rid of the problem.

But there is a back story to Grendel. We see it in a prologue to the tale titled A Hate is Born. The real hero of the story is Grendel, played superbly by Ingvar E. Sigurdsson with a sense of irony and humour overlaying a deeply scarred psyche.

Grendel is hated as a troll. He is a giant, unspeakably powerful. And he grew up in isolation, so he not only lacks social skills, he lacks language — or rather he sings and laments and can be understood by Selma, but to both the Danes and us it sounds like moaning and shouting.

There are many threads to the complex retelling of this anything but simple story. Gunnarsson follows an invisible but highly focused through-line. Since we already know the story, its characters and the outcome — or think we do — as director he is free to improvise—which he does and brilliantly.

Scenically the photography is overwhelming — mists and crags, powerful natural greens and earth tones, the indefinable mutations of volcanically filtered light and the sea and ice-scapes — all building an unforgettable image of a crude warrior society struggling with new ideals of heroism, and encountering compassion for the first time, not as a separate act of kindness toward a fallen foe, but as an ideal standard to be absorbed.

There are moments that blur our believability. This is not supposed to be a movie about good-ol’-boys, for example. But on the whole, Beowulf and Grendel is both an original and a gutsy movie. It is also grittier than most heroic screen epics of our day — no CGI, all effects executed on set and created the old-fashioned way by prosthetics and editing.

On top of that is such a beautifully photographed movie, it’s a natural for IMAX.