Hwæt! Þe celebrated saga in Anglo-Saxon
Hollywood has adapted anew.
Hear then of how brave Beowulf
Confronted the creature Grendel and his kin
In Þis time-honored tale retold with technowizardry.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Adapted from the epic poem.
Ray Winstone as Beowulf
Robin Wright Penn as Wealthow
Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar
Crispin Glover as Grendel
Charlotte Salt as Estrith
Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother
Brendan Gleeson as Wigluf
Sebastian Roché as Wulfgar
John Malkovich as Unferth
A monster bedevils the hall of Hrothgar. Brave-hearted Beowulf and his battle-geared Geats agree to rid the realm of gargantuan Grendel. This troll-like titan is only their first fight; more monsters await, as yet unseen. Beowulf the epic has survived centuries, and more than once have movies been made of its matter. In 2007, Robert Zemeckis used motion-capture and CGI to bring a turn on the Teutonic tale again to theater.
An epic intended to be recited has its own conventions which do not consistently suit cinema. Purists may protest some significant shifts made by Gaiman and Avary, but they tie together unexplained elements of the ancient account. The dragon of the denouement now connects to the conflicts from the commencement. Questions about Grendel's kindred line and motives also are answered. I don't judge the cinematic saga superior to the source, but the changes fit the medium of film and its fans. The script even speaks of its switches. The adventurers are aware their myth does not match the realities they recall.
The computer-created effects of the film have called forth considerable conversation. Motion-capture and CGI presents people who nearly resemble reality. I felt the stylization suited a legend; others felt the near-reality disturbingly doll-like. The results in any case recall 300, though the filmmakers attempt to tell a more human and less heavy-handed history.
They do not consistently succeed.
The filmmakers decided to have Beowulf disrobe before he greets Grendel in battle. They also preferred a PG rating. To mediate, the makers picked the Austin Powers path of placing objects between our perspective and the protagonist's privates.1 The comical consequences conflict with the tone of the tale.
A similar attitude affects the handling of Grendel's Mother. Far from the fearsome hag of the history, the film-epic exhibits Angelina Jolie, nude but lacking nipples or perceptible pudendum. The result seems both prurient and puritanical. Either display nudity and accept the restricted rating that results, or cover contentious concerns. Beowulf would have been fine fighting in a loin cloth; Jolie has abilities beyond her body.
Sandal epics tend to teeter toward kitsch, and the interpretation of Grendel's mother takes it over edge, with her equivocal exposure, eccentric accent, and dubious design. The monster-mother's most conspicuous camp feature: feet simulating stiletto heels.
Objections aside (including the expected epic shouting), I found almost all the actors presented passably. The sequences of skirmishing have been handled with suitable spectacle. They would be breathtaking in 3-D, though, alas, few theaters feature the film in this form.
Overall, the script presents the piece with nuance and humor. It makes an interesting evening's entertainment, if not the keenest for praise.
1. An episode of M.A.S.H. used a similar technique for comic effect, and I suppose movies and shows may have done so long before Austin Powers.