Ancient 'Beowulf' infused with vigor

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: October 5, 2006 | Publication: The Wichita Eagle | Author: BOB CURTRIGHT
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Iceland-born director Sturla Gunnarsson, who cut his directing teeth in American television with such projects as "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol," returns to his wintry roots for a bold new take on ancient epic poetry in "Beowulf & Grendel."

Gunnarsson scrupulously preserves the barren, windswept, unkempt look of 500 A.D. just as civilization -- and Christianity -- was stirring from warring clans in Scandinavia.

But he uses modern cadences and idioms -- including some ear-burning Anglo-Saxonisms -- that give a surprising vigor and verve to the ancient tale.

The untamed, unspoiled vistas of Dane Land and Geat Land (actually filmed in Iceland), are huge and breathtaking. But the pace is slow, reflecting characters concerned with little more than subsistence.

The poem centers on Beowulf the Geat, a hero who rises literally from the sea to battle the murderous troll Grendel, who eats the flesh of his victims, grinds their bones into dust (hence his name) and uses their skulls for bowling balls.

Grendel is a plague for Danish king Hrothgar, but filmmakers show how the monster evolved from a wronged child, whose father was slaughtered by the king for crossing his path.

Scottish actor Gerard Butler goes classically moody and broody as Beowulf. He's a determined hero until he begins to doubt his own righteousness.

Iceland's Ingvar Sigurdsson is a compelling Grendel, who dresses in animal skins and speaks in grunts. Like Frankenstein's misunderstood monster, he embodies both deadly menace and tragic dignity.

Stellan Skarsgard is effective as the arrogant Hrothgar, who realizes too late that his own sins cause his torment.

And Sarah Polley is mysterious and seductive as Selma, a beautiful witch who catches Beowulf's eye but who is sympathetic to Grendel because she is also an outcast.

Throughout the film, director Gunnarsson shows a minstrel composing for eager listeners the folktales of Beowulf that will be embellished through the centuries into an epic. It's a knowing recognition of how truth is overwhelmed by legend.