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DVD Review - Beowulf & Grendel

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews
Article Date: September 26, 2006 | Publication: | Author: D. SCOTT APEL

Posted by: admin

In 500 A.D., on the outskirts of Daneland, a murderous troll with the strength of a dozen men regularly invades the Mead Hall of King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) and slaughters his warriors by the score. To his aid comes the hero Beowulf (Gerard Butler), a legendary warrior who vows to "see Valhalla or his head on a pike." But the determined avenger discovers that his battle is much more complicated than the simple "hero vs. monster" scenario most of the others would like to believe it is.

If you've ever taken an English Lit course, chances are you've been forced to endure reading at least a few stanzas of this epic sixth century poem, an early and seminal work of literature in the language of the Anglo-Saxons. We are pleased to report that this is one of those rare instances in which the movie is better than the book. Although faithful to the source material in its major events, in order to expand the story to feature length, writer Andrew Rai Berzins details the background of the principals, fleshing them out as three-dimensional characters as well as iconic figures, and adds an additional layer of depth to the classic chronicle. "It's about questioning assumptions about violent resolutions" to problems, Berzins discloses in an interview on the disc.

Berzins' take on the tale is respectful yet decidedly post-modern, exchanging the supernatural elements for psychological depth, and cleverly indicating how the events he portrays so realistically become inflated into legend in the hands of a skilled story-spinner. Beowulf, for example, didn't walk under the sea to Daneland, as his myth would have it, it seems; he simply fell off a fishing boat and washed up on shore a few days later. Not exactly the superheroic deed it would evolve into after numerous embellished retellings. (One charmingly subtle touch lies in watching Beowulf's chagrin when he catches the storyteller recounting his epic triumphs to a group of kids.) And rather than just another strong-of-arm but weak-of-brain soldier, Beowulf is more modern man than savage: his eventual triumph relies as much on his psychological savvy as it does on his sword. His prickly relationship with the shunned "witch," Selma (Sarah Polley), for instance, proves to be his key to understanding the motive behind the troll's apparently senseless bloodlust.

The film is violent and obscene, but fittingly so—it's about a bunch of armed, hard-drinking warriors hunting a monster, after all—but these realistic rough edges stand in counterpoint to the lush cinematography and awe-inspiring landscapes of Iceland, where much of it was shot. And although the movie starts slowly, it grows into an intelligent action epic as compelling and scary as any modern horror story.

Is watching this film an adequate substitute for reading the original? Most English teachers would probably say no. But if we look past the recorded words to the reason they were recorded in the first place, and the reason they have lasted a millennium and a half, we might intuit that even the original version was less about the words than it was about the telling of a gripping story that holds an audience spellbound. Movies are our modern method of accomplishing this same aim, and this film—like Excaliber or Spartacus—is an excellent example of how the classic tales of yore can extend their lineage into new ages by translating them into a contemporary format. More fun, too.

The DVD extras are fairly standard and unexceptional. The commentary with director Sturla Gunnarsson has some interesting notes about shooting in Iceland, but the deleted scenes are few and irrelevant. The short making-of doc was recorded on a camcorder, and the short (two- to 10-minute) interviews add nothing of note.


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