Movie does the improbable, makes Beowulf entertaining

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: September 8, 2006 | Publication: Plain Dealer | Author: Joanna Connors
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Urgent message to all students taking Intro to English Lit or History of English Lit this semester: As tempting as it looks, do not -- repeat, do not -- skip reading that "Beowulf" assignment and figure you can just see "Beowulf and Grendel" at the Cleveland Cinematheque this weekend instead.

See the movie, by all means. But see it for its high-camp comedy. See it for its unintentional resemblance to a Monty Python movie, if Monty Python had done a big-screen version of "Xena: Warrior Princess." Or see it because the star, Gerard Butler, just might make you forget that unhealthy fixation you've had on George Clooney all these years.

Whatever you do, though, remember: Do not use the movie as the basis of a paper, or for last-minute cramming before an exam, or even as a substitute for CliffsNotes. Things will not end well if you do.

"Beowulf and Grendel," directed by the Icelandic-Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnersson, takes tons of liberties with the epic Anglo-Saxon poem -- which, as you students should have learned by now, is not only the oldest known piece of literature in the English language, but also ranks as one of the top methods of torture carried out inside American high schools, according to Amnesty International.

So Gunnersson has achieved a lot simply by making "Beowulf" so entertaining, intentionally or not. He and the screenwriter, Andrew Rai Berzins, have pared the epic down to its essentials. The heroic Beowulf (Butler) of Geatland takes 12 warriors across the sea to fight the monster troll, Grendel, who plagues the Danish king Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard). After that, Beowulf has to fight Grendel's mother, a troll who lives underwater. The film dispenses with the epic's third fight, against a dragon.

It also dispenses with much of the epic's surrealism and myth, substituting an aesthetic that is equal parts Monty Python and frat house. The Monty Python comes in the overdone Dark Ages sloth, and in the parade of jarring anachronisms: A witch, played by Sarah Polley, looks and sounds like she just got out of Bill and Ted's time-travelling phone booth, while Beowulf has lines such as, "I tell you, this troll must be one tough [expletive]." By the time Grendel loses his arm in a fight, in one of the poem's most famous passages, you expect him to say, "It's just a flesh wound!"

Add to that a bunch of guys sitting around drinking, telling dirty jokes, burping, scratching, looking at women, and fighting, and you only need a round or two of beer pong to have "Beowulf House."

To their credit, the filmmakers also add a modernist, psychological angle, echoing John Gardner's novel "Grendel" and Gregory Maguire's "Wicked." Their Grendel is not the purely evil monster of the poem. He's a troll with a soul, a misunderstood monster with a Hamlet complex, driven mad by his father's murder and killing only to avenge it. Like another misunderstood monster, Frankenstein, he has human feelings, too; he cries out in anguish and loneliness.

As for Beowulf, the movie transforms him into the thinking-man's monster-slayer. He ponders Grendel's motives, and suspects that the Danish king Hrothgar -- whom Beowulf has come to serve -- is not telling him the whole story. While the rest of the guys party in the king's beer hall, he sits back, deep in thought.

Of course, he's probably thinking: "Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you."

The film plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and at 9:10 p.m. Sunday at the Cleveland Institute of Art, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7450. Tickets are $8 at the door.