Beowulf & Grendel, Look Both Ways, and Nacho Libre

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: June 15, 2006 | Publication: The Stranger.Com | Author: Lindy West
Publication/Article Link:http://www.thestranger.com

This limp, big-screen adaptation of everyone's favorite Anglo-Saxon epic, which screened at the Seattle International Film Festival last week and is (oddly) beginning its U.S. theatrical run in Seattle, opens with an abrupt and suspenseless chase. A loinclothed mountain man and his baby son are pursued across the icy heath by barbarous Nordic warriors. Dad is killed (penance for some unexplained transgression) and baby Grendel's hard grievance is born.

From the start, director Sturla Gunnarsson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins seem unsure of their path: Is this a traditional hero's tale or a cheeky update? An apologist retelling or a monstrous fantasy? They settle lamentably on "all of the above," and, by extension, say nothing at all. Heroic language like "Geats don't wield words where swords speak truer" is intercut with horrid—if frequently Anglo-Saxon derived—anachronisms ("This troll must be one tough prick!"). Meanwhile, Sarah Polley (as troll-humpin' witch Selma) has a Canadian drawl that is laughably distracting.

To humanize the demon Grendel (in pursuit of "the human dimension of the hero epic," according to Gunnarsson), he's been sympathetically recast as a child wronged—a made monster—and thus robbed of his mystery, dignity, and chill. Except, oh wait, he still has super-strength and an amphibious sea-hag for a mom, sending that made-monster thesis out the window. So he's one part monster, one part man, no parts terror, all parts pointless.

There's some mildly interesting Christ- versus-Odin tension ("My gods don't ask me to bow," says Hrothgar), several heaving Viking bosoms, and flocks of fuzzy-spotted ponies. Stellan Skarsgård is excellent, of course, as drunky King Hrothgar, and Beowulf, ably portrayed by Gerard Butler, is all hunky, grimy earnestness.

And if there's one thing the filmmakers did agree on, it's beards. There are beards everywhere in this movie! Old beards, crusty beards, braided beards, heroic beards—even the troll babies have beards (wispy blond ones!). But all the beards in the world (and it's got 'em all) can't save Beowulf & Grendel. Ultimately, the monumental Icelandic landscape steals the show, rendering these silly human dramas (and beards) inconsequential.