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Not-so-great Dane: Barbarian movie Beowulf & Grendel needs more punch

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: March 31, 2006 | Publication: Kingston Whig-Standard (Ontario) | Author: Katherine Monk
Source: http://www.thewhig.com

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BEOWULF & GRENDEL

Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson
Written by Andrew Rai Berzins
Playing at the Screening Room

Cast
Beowulf... Gerard Butler
Selma... Sarah Polley
Hrothgar... Stellan Skarsgard
Grendel... Ingvar E. Sigurdsson

Rating: HH1/2 (out of five)

- - -

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 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.

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.

When Beowulf first meets Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) as a grown man, he fails to ask why Grendel makes a distinction between his foes, which means he has no idea Hrothgar killed Grendel's father, and is therefore his sworn enemy.

In this version of the tale, morality and the validity of a vengeful quest outweighs the action and adventure, which may have been a miscalculation as far as the film's box office is concerned.

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 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.

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.

A truly strange effort, Beowulf & 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, that's all that matters.

 


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