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Beowulf & Grendel

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: June 18, 2006 | Publication: Movie City News | Author: David Poland

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Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson

Sturla Gunnarsson, the director of Such A Long Journey - which is one of my favorite films, thanks to Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival and which is almost impossible to buy now (though you can rent it on Netflix) - was up at SIFF with his newest film, Beowulf & Grendel, that's about to be released into a few selected theaters through the summer. (More details on that in ROTD below.)

I hadn't seen Sturla in about 5 years… really since his last film, Rare Birds, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on 9/11/01. Ouch. So it was great to see him up in Seattle and I was shocked to find that he was not the only one in Seattle for his film. Turns out that a high school group drove over three hours to be at one showing of the film - they were studying Beowulf at school - but even more amazing was the parade of Gerard Butler fans who are following the movie from city to city and screening to screening, thrilled by the movie and their most beloved film star. Really, this was Valentino stuff. I was told by the festival that Beowulf & Grendel was one of only two movies to sell out in under 10 days of tickets going on sale.

The movie leaps right into the action, explaining the first part of the story about how Grendel came to a deadly hate of the Dane King. Beowulf will come to protect the Danes and will learn much more about Grendel than he expects.

This is the territory of sword and sorcery, but that's not what Gunnarsson is up to here. The magical elements of the film are not a stylized abstraction, but a way into an exploration of very human characteristics. Grendel is a grown up hurt child. Beowulf is a hero who finally has to confront that what are heroics to him may not be heroics to other. The Dane King is a depressed lush, fearful of what he doesn't know, with an ultimate fear that he and his kingdom really deserve to fall. And Selma, the witch, is a woman with a history, earning her sensitivity the hard way.

In the meanwhile, the background of Iceland is rather spectacular. At one moment, it evoked An Inconvenient Truth for me, as a peak over a hill showed an area covered in green right next to an area covered in ice. Gunnarsson evokes the world as a place where territories went as far as the eye could see and not much further… a world so small that one death can change everything… a world of heroes whose heroics are truly beyond comprehension.

I quite liked the film. For me, with a career of really wonderful work, this is one of my favorite performances ever by Stellan Skarsgard. He isn't using any of the professional tricks we are used to seeing him pull out of the hat. That voice and his height are both diminished as he plays a man stripped of his usual power. And Sarah Polley does some of her best work here. Polley's sensuality, which always seems tamped down when I run into her in public, flies freer here than I have really seen before. It is an adult sensuality and it is not because she is glammed up or trying to be sexy. She is the smartest person in the film and the most in touch with her deepest feelings (aside from the near-silent Grendel, perhaps), though she carries a lot of pain. Once she finds herself capable of choice, she seems unwilling to ever do any less than to exercise it. Another wonderful performance.

I quite liked Gerard Butler as well, though I have to say, for me, it was not a very special performance. But life as the hero rarely has many layers. His role is a bit thankless, though he is strong and handsome and appropriately emotional. Solid.

The only thing thing missing from the movie for me was an opening sequence of Beowulf as the Uber-Hero, unstoppable and righteously reveling in victory. Setting Beowulf up more dramatically would make the awareness he is forced into all the more powerful. But still, a very strong, unexpected experience. It ain't Lord of the Rings. But it really doesn't want to be.


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