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Ancient fable lacks epic punch on big screen

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: March 17, 2006 | Publication: Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia) | Author: Katherine Monk, CanWest News Service

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Beowulf and Grendel

Directed by: Sturla Gunnarsson

Stars: Gerard Butler, Sarah Polley, Stella Skarsgard, Ingvar E. Sigurdsson

Where: Odeon

Rating: 2 1/2

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College students beware. This movie version of Beowulf is not the one to watch before writing your English literature exam.

Featuring new characters, updated dialogue and a post-modern take on the nobility of the heroic quest, Sturla Gunnarsson's movie cuts a brave and bold swath through the gnarled landscape of the ancient text.

Believed to have been written more than 1,200 years ago by a native of what was called West Mercia (the West Midlands of today), Beowulf tells the story of a brave Geat (sic) warrior named Beowulf and his quest to destroy the marauding, giant troll Grendel.

Grendel has slaughtered Danes without mercy, leaving Beowulf's Danish friend Hrothgar a broken-hearted cripple of a king. Beowulf, following the ancient code of the warrior, has decided to avenge Hrothgar and the Danes by wielding his long sword and slaying the dreaded beast.

The original poem, written in Anglo-Saxon, is considered the first epic poem in English and inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings with its grand scale, its depiction of the warrior's way of life and its grand, dramatic tableaux pitting good against evil.

Beowulf is also one of the few early works of literature that alludes to the rise of Christian ideology, only without any direct references to Jesus, his sacrifice or any other specifics that could, potentially, interfere with the sanctity of the warrior's own code, and his dedication to a different kind of lord -- not the religious kind, but the one who would keep a warrior fed, clothed and honoured among men.

In Gunnarsson's movie Beowulf and Grendel, scripted by Andrew Rai Berzins, creative licence gives way to some fundamental changes to the story's structure, and finally, its message. Beowulf (Gerard Butler) is still a hero among men, but this version bears witness to his struggle with conscience as he hunts down Grendel (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), the giant who seeks to destroy the Danes.

People seeking an epic swashbuckler will be disappointed by the film's humble scale and scanty battle scenes. Meanwhile, those seeking a loyal adaptation of the "original'' text (the poem has been rewritten several times over and was once nearly lost to a great fire) will be surprised to see the presence of Selma, the soothsaying witch, played by Sarah Polley.

Polley's character does not appear in the text, but you can see why Berzins wanted to throw her into the mix. Selma is the the force of human sexuality, as well as feminine compromise and tolerance. It's through the character of Selma that the viewer is made to understand the cyclical nature of violence, and its recurring presence in the lives of men.

Her presence in the film makes for a more interesting drama because it acknowledges a female perspective, something that is lacking in the macho warrior epic and because Sarah Polley brings a dynamic presence to any project she works on.

The downside is a simplification of theme. Despite Gunnarsson's best efforts to bring ambiguity to every frame, and Butler's strong performance as a warrior slowly learning the importance of seeing the other side, the script tends to make these complex, and very internal questions, obvious to the naked eye.

Moral soul-searching is something the viewer has to feel, not hear or see. The moment when Beowulf has his first "conversation'' with Grendel, he begins to see him as a human creature and not a beast, which, in turn, forces him to question his own mission to see Grendel die a violent death. The scene itself is not particularly bad, but it exposes too much of Beowulf's calloused heart to keep the drama pulsing with suspense. The movie is about finding emotional truth and measuring one's actions in accordance to that truth, which is as important a message today as it was more than 1,200 years ago.

Yet, you can't bludgeon people with a message no matter how important it is. You have to lead them to the point through emotions, not words or actions, so they feel the truth of that message rise within themselves.

Berzin's treatment is admirable, but lacks subtlety. Too much of the internal drama is yanked out and laid bare to the viewer, which half the time, just feels silly.

A prime example is the "rape'' of Selma at the hand of Grendel. This was one scene we really did not need to see, as it veers awfully close to Catherine the Great-inspired camp. Polley seems to play up the camp with her coy smile that seems to whisper: "Once you've had troll, everyone else's manhood is droll.''

A truly strange effort, Beowulf and Grendel is a magnificent film to watch thanks to the majestic visuals and the captivating scenery but it fails to satisfy emotionally, and whether you're talking about a 1,200-year-old text, or a cutting-edge film shot on location, that's all that matters.

Copyright 2006 Times Colonist, a division of Canwest MediaWorks Publication Inc.
All Rights Reserved


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