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Beowulf & Grendel

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: March 9, 2006 | Publication: Georgia Straight | Author: Mark Harris
Source: http://www.straight.com/content.cfm?id=16498

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Starring Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, and Sarah Polley. Rated 14A.

Originally composed anonymously sometime between the middle of the eighth and the beginning of the 10th century in allusive Anglo Saxon, Beowulf continues to excite the modern imagination.

Neither the poem’s notoriously difficult language, faulty manuscript transcription, confusing religious ideology, outmoded politics, nor the scorch marks left by the fire that almost destroyed the text in 1731 have prevented this epic tale of Geats, Danes, and monsters from being recast over and over again. Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney recently turned the tale’s Old English verse into its modern equivalent; Michael Crichton used Beowulf as a pretext to choreograph a theoretical war between Neanderthals and Vikings; and John Gardner had the effrontery to retell this celebration of human force from the troll’s point of view.

Because of its great sympathy for Beowulf’s primary opponent, it is to Gardner’s Grendel that Sturla Gunnarsson’s screen version of this cornerstone of English literature is probably most beholden. From the film’s opening moments, we know why this homicidal giant came by his rotten disposition, and how culpable the men upon whom he preys really are.

Not for nothing is the film called Beowulf & Grendel. Indeed, it is this monstrous empathy that will probably most irritate Beowulf purists. Iron Age warriors, after all, did not normally worry themselves unduly about the moral niceties surrounding the dispatch of deformed demons to the netherworld. That’s much more of a modern preoccupation, so once again a period drama turns out to be more about the time in which it was made than the time in which it is ostensibly set.

Another endemic problem is the distorted shadow that Norse warriors have traditionally been made to cast upon the screen. Usually shown raping and pillaging in ahistorical horned helmets, the other aspects of Viking culture (the composition of poems; the relatively enlightened sexual politics; the cosmopolitan passion for trading and travel) have been studiously ignored. As a result, there’s something vaguely Monty Pythonish about any depiction of the Valhalla-bound.

To his credit, Vancouver-raised director Gunnarsson does a pretty fair job of sidestepping these rather daunting pitfalls. Thanks to great performances from Stellan Skarsgård (as conscience-stricken King Hrothgar), Gerard Butler (as the surprisingly subdued hero), and Sarah Polley (who steals the show as a sexy, witchy monster-vamp), the camp potential is kept to an absolute minimum.

The use of Icelandic locations is likewise quite skillful, while the coming-of-Christianity subplot is a clever way of commenting on Beo?wulf’s already mentioned religious complexity.

If, in the final analysis, Beowulf & Grendel isn’t an entirely satisfying adaptation, that probably owes more to the grandeur of the source material than to any cinematic inadequacy on the director’s part. Great literary classics virtually never get their due on celluloid.

That doesn’t stop filmmakers from trying, however; neither does it prevent us from watching and enjoying half-successful compromises such as this.

 


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