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Poignant beast makes 'Beowulf' memorable

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: June 30, 2006 | Publication: Inside Bay Area | Author: Barry Caine, STAFF WRITER

Posted by: admin

'BEOWULF," you may recall, is a ninth-century epic poem traditionally foisted on students by sadistic teachers.

Most people graduate with no memory of its content beyond the presence of swords, a monster and pages of impenetrable language.

"Beowulf & Grendel" may send some of the disenchanted back to the original.

And maybe not.

Thought-provoking and poignant, the film was shot in Iceland with actors whose accents are, like the source material, often too dense to decipher.

The rugged settings complement the storytelling, but a few forays into snow-covered landscapes distract and befuddle: One moment everything's white, the next dusty brown.

Do seasons change that quickly in Iceland?

Better editing would have smoothed the transition between extremes and dispelled the jarring effect.

The awkwardness pokes through in other spots, too.

The story remains manageable, despite occasionally unfolding in a random manner.

Danish King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) murders a troll but spares his bearded son. The son grows up to be huge, scruffy and vindictive. He tears the heads off throngs of Danish soldiers.

(If you are averse to decapitation scenes, you only have to turn your head a little.)

Legendary Norse hero Beowulf (Gerard Butler of "The Phantom of the Opera") takes his mighty band to the king's land to dispatch the troll, Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson).

Director Sturla Gunnarsson eases you into the sixth century, a time when superstitions feed fear and feastings fatten the indolent.

Boasting about gods and Valhalla increases with the danger, making the myth and its accompanying tension more palpable.

Christianity, seen in an early stage, has a supporting role, attracting frightened soldiers with promises of peace and heaven.

A once-proud warrior, the diminished king considers it. Over time, guilt has corroded his vigor, drink sped his dissipation.

Skarsgard ("Good Will Hunting," "Pirates of the Caribbean") adds gravitas to the kind of role actors kill for. Hrothgar becomes a tragic figure, pitiable and coarse but profound.

Butler gets leftover scenery to chew. His Beowulf acts convincingly confident and proud of his legendary accomplishments. But he still sees himself as a man.

Beowulf's openness to finding the truth behind the murders and adapting accordingly fleshes him out somewhat. So, too, do his feints with Selma, an earthy witch played by Sarah Polley.

But it's Sigurdsson's Grendel who drives the picture. Even when he's off-screen he's a presence.

Grendel's raw emotionality his howl is a cry from the depths turns him into the film's most sympathetic character. He makes the movie resonate.

And he compels you to consider revisiting the poem, "consider" being the operative word.


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