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Epic film based on epic poem makes a few, mostly good, changes

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: March 9, 2006 | Publication: The Gateway | Author: Adam Gaumont

Posted by: admin

Review: Beowulf and Grendel
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson
Starring Gerard Butler, Stellen Skarsgard, Sarah Polley and Igvar E Sigurdsson
Opens Friday, 10 March

All right, so you've heard about this famous Beowulf poem of bygone days, about the Danes and Geats and their kings and so forth. But you might not have seen any movies on itafter all, there haven't been all that many made. Well, there was that one sci-fi version that came out a few years ago starring Highlander vet Christopher Lambert, but it's almost too awful to mention.

Thankfully, we now have Beowulf and Grendel, Icelandic-Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson's creative rendition of the Anglo-Saxon epic, as an alternative. Gunnarsson sticks to the basic elements of the plot: Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), a hideous beast, has been ravaging the mead-hall of Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård), the Danish king. Not knowing what else to do, Hrothgar calls on Beowulf (Gerard Butler), living in a distant Geatish land, to come and bail him out. After apparently swimming all the way over, Beowulf vows to Hrothgar that he’ll slay this Grendel fiend, dedicating himself to complete the task or die trying.

For fans of the poem, similarities between it and the film end early (and, sadly, the bit about the dragon is left out). For one thing, Grendel is not exactly a monster: he's actually a troll, a really big, ugly human, one with trollish feelings and desires. He also likes to smash rocks against his forehead while screaming out primitive, doltish yelps across the fjords and also enjoys breaking the necks of predictably inept Danish soldiers.

Like the Grendel of old, he hates the rowdy, boisterous goings-on in the hall, but unlike his literary counterpart, this Grendel has a better reason for hating them than the fact that he's the kin of Cain and that the Danes are annoying Christians: Hrothgar killed his father. The movie's opening scene shows a young, boyish Grendel traumatized by this brutish warrior-king, only to be spared from the sword. Grendel becomes that much more sympathetic of a character, as his hatred for Hrothgar and his men is not only explained but arguably justified. Oh, monstrous world!

With this directorial decision, Gunnarsson and writer Andrew Rai Berzins seem to jump from beards to the Bard, as the story becomes a Shakespearean revenge tragedy,further removing itself from its source material—and not an epic parable about faith and honour.

But the film does retain many monstrous elements. For one thing, the film itself is something of a freakish creation, a curious blend of textual fidelity and modern adaptation, one that will make purists shriek and teenage boys delight.

Some changes are quaint and amusing; the characters all swear like sailors, parrots, for instance, and the sequence in which Grendel loses his arm will impress with its cleverness.

Other changes are less forgivable, however, at least to those who cherish the purity of the poem. Most notably, the character of Selma is introduced, an elusive (and sexy!) outsider (played by Sarah Polley) who lives on the outskirts of society and who is implicated in a plot twist far too revealing to reprint here.

Whether you end up embracing Gunnarsson's vision of this Anglo-Saxon classic or not, one thing is certain: it's loads better than that wretched Christopher Lambert version, and a lot easier to get through than the poem in Old English. If you can handle some creative changes to an epic work, Beowulf and Grendel is a great, if highly adapted, film.


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