Ancient epic poem `Beowulf' seen through a modern prism

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: July 14, 2006 | Publication: Chicago Tribune | Author: Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
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Two elements of "Beowulf & Grendel" make a mixed-up and unbalanced picture nearly worthwhile. One is Iceland. Shooting in various, epically craggy corners of a country that hasn't been location scouted to death, the film's makers resort to not a single computer-generated effect in this pictorially imposing retelling of the heroic tale. (Scholars date "Beowulf" to somewhere between the 7th and 11th Centuries.)

The other element you never fully see. It's a bone-white sea creature--Death, glimpsed only as a forearm with clawlike digits--who appears now and then in Icelandic-born Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson's picture. As that ashen-looking arm grabs for a victim, it's horrible and sort of beautiful.

Gunnarsson likes it like that but only rarely achieves both extremes. This gristle-intensive R-rated version of "Beowulf" travels a predictable revisionist route. No longer an evil descendant of Cain--the poem's tensions between pagan Norse legend and Christianity have been heightened in the screenplay--Grendel becomes a victim of blind, brutish racism.

The time is 500 A.D. Early we see Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard), king of the Danes, murdering the father of the hairy blond troll-child, Grendel. (Grown up, bitter and even more hairy, he's played by Ingvar Sigurdsson.) Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins is super-intent on placing our sympathies with the misunderstood loner. When a title card announces "From the sea, a hero," heralding the arrival of monster-slayer Beowulf, the audience thinks: Haven't we already met our hero? The anguished troll with the considerable forehead, righteously counter-terrorizing his tormentors?

The film, shot in English, piles up big piles of Norsemen's bones along with a dizzying variety of accents. Beowulf is played by Scottish actor Gerard Butler. Skarsgard is Swedish. Sigurdsson is Icelandic. Sarah Polley, surprisingly stilted as the witchy witch named Selma, hails from Canada. While cinema may be a visual medium foremost, it's also an aural one, and the cacaphony of dialects sounds not so much "universal" or interestingly multicultural as simply all over the map.

`Beowulf & Grendel'


Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson; screenplay by Andrew Rai Berzins, based on the epic poem; cinematography by Jan Kiesser; edited by Jeff Warren; production design by Arni Pall Johannsson; music by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson; produced by Paul Stephens, Eric Jordan, Gunnarsson, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan and Anna Maria Karlsdottir. An Equinoxe Films release; opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:43.