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Beowulf & Grendel an epic movie

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: March 10, 2006 | Publication: TheStar.Com | Author: GEOFF PEVERE
Source: http://www.thestar.com/

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Starring Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, Sarah Polley, Ingvar Sigurdsson. Written by Andrew Rai Berzins. Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. 103 minutes. At major theatres. 14A


By stripping the ninth-century epic poem Beowulf down to its narrative bones, and by shooting it with an unembellished, steely realism, the Icelandic-born Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson has made something decidedly unusual from this medieval tale of revenge and reckoning. It's like a thoughtful action movie with a conscience, and equally evocative of such frontier men-vs.-monster movies like both versions of The Thing and Predator as it is classical prose.

While the narrative similarity to horror movies and westerns — and particularly those that involve groups of men sent to remote outposts to slay terrorizing enemies — probably says more about the primal resonance of the poem's mythic undercurrents than it does Gunnarsson's movie, there's no escaping the fact that what makes this otherwise risky undertaking work as well as it does is the fact that it's played straight: this isn't the story of mythological heroes and monsters, but of men ultimately confronting their own reflection in the monster (or in this case the troll), they've been dispatched to exterminate.

After his hardscrabble coastal "kingdom" — really some huts barely clinging to rocks — is persistently harassed by the giant troll Grendel (Icelandic star Ingvar Sigurdsson), the surly King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård) sends for the already mythic slayer Beowulf (Gerard Butler) to cross the seas and eliminate the big, hairy pest.

Although already wearying of his own reputation (among other things, Beowulf is a pagan precursor of all those saddle-weary gunslingers), Beowulf takes up the challenge. But his foe, an NBA-sized prankster who is far more likely to take giant-sized leaks on the men's quarters than rip anyone's head off, proves a wily and beguiling enemy. Indeed, particularly after engaging in some predictably elliptical conversation with the discourteous witch Selma (Sarah Polley), Beowulf begins to suspect what we already know: that the monster is really not a monster at all, but a wounded human being harbouring a strongly motivated, and utterly justified, personal grudge.

Working from Andrew Rai Berzins' blunt anti-epic script — which has Beowulf's men speak to each other in the casually profane manner that fighting groups of men probably always have — Gunnarsson has made a movie that works best when it's focusing on the crisis of purpose confronting this determined, likeable but not especially overintellectual hero: as played by the earthily charismatic Scot actor Butler (The Phantom of the Opera), Beowulf is a man who is slow to see the light but determined to follow it when he does. He commands loyalty in his men and is in turn loyal even to the drunken crab-apple Hrothgar (a very funny and cruddy-looking Skarsgård), but his real affinity is to doing what he senses is right. And what's been driving the campaign against Grendel certainly isn't right.

Shot on location on the staggeringly beautiful — and really cold-looking — Icelandic coast, Beowulf & Grendel smartly incorporates its forbidding landscapes as a character. It's hard and cold and resistant to any puny mortal attempts to civilize it, which is one of the reasons why the theme of emergent Christianity (as embodied by the presence of Eddie Marsan's baptizing Brother Brendan) has a particularly ironic twist on these rocks: if God can stick it out here, he can make it anywhere. Even wrapped in skins, fur, armour and enough body hair to challenge theories of evolution, Beowulf and his cronies always look just about blue-nosed with the shivers.

Gunnarsson, who has worked extensively in documentary and television production, and whose features include Rare Birds and Such a Long Journey, is hardly a flashy director, but here his unostentatious, straight-on style perfectly suits the rugged practicality of his heavy-metal-wielding characters. Even the (relatively, by Hollywood standards) low budget, which occasionally shows itself in epic battle scenes that refuse to feel epic, ultimately works in the movie's favour: this is a godforsaken place where only the hearty few and mighty foolish dare to live.

While one might argue the movie makes a tactical miscalculation by revealing too much of both the troll and his motivating childhood trauma too early — thus robbing the movie of the opportunity to reveal the truth to us in synch with Beowulf's realization — and while Sarah Polley's downtown Toronto dialect sounds jarringly out of place being blown across the Icelandic coast, Beowulf & Grendel is for the most part a successfully strange and strangely moving adventure.

 


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