Beowulf battles his conscience, and evil

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: May 18, 2006 | Publication: The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan) | Author: Katherine Monk
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Copyright 2006 The Leader-Post, a division of Canwest MediaWorks Publication Inc.
'Beowulf and Grendel'


Regina Public Library Film Theatre

Rating 2 1/2 (out of five)

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Students beware. This movie version of Beowulf is not the one to watch before writing your English exam.

Featuring new characters, updated dialogue and a post-modern take on the nobility of the heroic quest, Sturla Gunnarsson's movie cuts a brave and bold swath through the gnarled landscape of the ancient text.

Believed to have been written more than 1,200 years ago by a native of what was called West Mercia (the West Midlands of today) Beowulf tells the story of a brave warrior named Beowulf and his quest to destroy the marauding giant troll Grendel.

Grendel has slaughtered Danes without mercy, leaving Beowulf's Danish friend Hrothgar a broken-hearted cripple of a king. Beowulf, following the ancient code of the warrior, has decided to avenge Hrothgar and the Danes by wielding his long sword and slaying the dreaded beast.

The poem, written in Anglo-Saxon, is considered the first epic poem in English and inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings by its grand scale, its depiction of the warrior's way of life, and its dramatic tableaux, which pits good against evil.

Beowulf is also one of the few early works of literature that alludes to the rise of Christian ideology, but without any direct references to Jesus Christ, his sacrifice or any other specifics that could, potentially, interfere with the sanctity of the warrior's own code and his dedication to a different kind of lord -- not the religious kind, but one who would keep a warrior fed, clothed and honoured among men.

In Gunnarsson's movie, Beowulf and Grendel, scripted by Andrew Rai Berzins, creative licence is stretched to create some fundamental changes to the story's structure and, ultimately, its message.

Beowulf (Gerard Butler) is still a hero among men, but this version bears witness to his struggle with conscience as he hunts down Grendel (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), the giant who seeks to destroy the Danes.

When Beowulf first meets Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) as a grown man, he fails to ask why Grendel makes a distinction between his foes, which means he has no idea Hrothgar killed Grendel's father, and is therefore his sworn enemy.

In this version of the tale, morality and the validity of a vengeful quest outweighs the action and adventure, which may have been a miscalculation as far as box office is concerned.

People seeking an epic swashbuckler will be disappointed by the film's humble scale and scanty battle scenes. Meanwhile, those seeking a loyal adaptation of the "original" text (the poem has been rewritten several times over and was once nearly lost to a great fire) will be surprised to see the presence of Selma, the soothsaying witch, played by Sarah Polley.

Polley's character does not appear in the text, but you can see why Berzins wanted to throw her into the mix. Selma is the force of human sexuality, as well as feminine compromise and tolerance. It's through the character of Selma that the viewer is made to understand the cyclical nature of violence, and its recurring presence in the lives of men.

Her presence in the film makes for a more interesting drama because it acknowledges a female perspective -- something that is lacking in the macho warrior epic -- and because Sarah Polley brings a dynamic presence to any project she works on.

The downside is a simplification of theme. Despite Gunnarsson's best efforts to bring ambiguity to every frame, and Butler's strong performance as a warrior slowly learning the importance of seeing the other side, the script tends to make these complex and very internal questions obvious to the naked eye.