"Find hungry samurai" -Gisaku



I read Beowulf as a kid but was probably not old enough to understand. Medieval literature has never held a fascination for me, because there seems to be little inner conflict. I understand that the medium was different then, but the bad guys rarely have focus and the good guys rarely have doubts. (It is because of his attempts to write medieval literature that I never was into LOTR as much as others were. Gollum seemed to be the only character in the whole book who really struggles with the weight of his actions.)

However, my friend Grendel (no relation, I think….) is a huge Beowulf fan, and listening to her talk enthusiastically about the story made me wonder if I’d missed out, so when the opportunity to review BEOWULF AND GRENDEL came along, I took it.

The movie starts off with a kid witnessing his father being killed; knocked off a cliff. “Ah!” I thought. “This is why Beowulf becomes a mighty warrior.” Then the kid goes down to the bottom of the cliff and cuts off his dad’s head and hugs it. That seemed…odd, but I’ve learned to expect anything from Scandinavians.

Next time we see the kid he’s all grown up, yelling at the mountains and smashing rocks into his head. Again, not my chosen activity, but as I recall, Beowulf was never prized for his staggering intelligence.

[Quick side note: When I was in school I wrote a story where Beowulf swims so far that he makes it to New York in the ‘70s. While initially overwhelmed, Beowulf adjusts to become a successful pimp and one of the Village People. When I told Grendel about this story she looked like she wanted to throw up. Then again, this is a girl who used to spend her weekends at Viking battle reenactments, so I don’t know if was being sacrilegious, or if it’s just her.]

I should have known the kid was weird because he had whiskers on his face, at five! I mention this because we soon meet the actual Beowulf (played by Gerard Butler, whom you may recognize as the latest Phantom).

I think my confusion stems from—and I could be wrong, but no, actually, now that I think about it, I’m NOT wrong—Grendel was not human, but a monster. If that was Grendel I just saw bashing his head with a rock, he’s definitely human. Ugly; sure, but no more so than Patrick Ewing.

Anyway, the next surprise was that Beowulf is Scottish! I thought maybe it was just a Scottish cast (you know how all those old Roman epics everyone is British), but I looked it up and most of the names are without many vowels. Is this how they think Beowulf would talk? Like a Scot? I started wondering if my hearing was off (I’ve been sick), but then the King sends Beowulf and his men off to fight Grendel with this admonition: “Find Hondscioh a wife; my sheep have had enough!”

If that’s not Scottish, I don’t know what is.

Another hallmark of medieval literature is that women pretty much are non-existent except to further the plot. Here we get an actual woman, played by Sarah Polley. I’ve liked Polley ever since GO, but I can’t imagine a worse choice for a tale sent in the 600s. (The only worse casting I can think of is if they’d ever made a GODFATHER III, and for some reason Francis Ford Coppola had put his daughter in it. I shudder just thinking about that possibility.)

Anyway, Polley is hugely miscast (I can almost guarantee you she knew the director or producer or something), but she does her best. And Butler as Beowulf doesn’t really do much either. He’s usually got too many heavy furs on to see his muscles, and the sword-fighting is very limited. If this is the greatest warrior of all time they sure don’t show it.

But another huge departure from the original time period, is that this movie seems to center more on Grendel. As I recall, the reason Grendel started terrorizing the Danes was he didn’t like them enjoying themselves. This time around we see a wounded child living to get revenge. This Grendel is among the most human of all the characters. Without a word of dialogue (well, he yells a lot, but let’s say no discernable dialogue), we come to understand his thoughts and feelings. (Major props to Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson!)

Another great surprise is Stellan Skarsgård as King Hrothgar, a once mighty man who is now weak and unable to defend his own people. Stellan has been one of my guys since BREAKING THE WAVES and GOOD WILL HUNTING, and always adds immeasurably to any movie he’s in.

I started off thinking BEOWULF AND GRENDEL would be pretty lame. They didn’t look to have much of a budget, and while the minimalism might actually help the characterization of people who lived in rough conditions, it doesn’t help the storyline. I guess we’re just supposed to take it for granted that Beowulf is a mighty warrior, but why? What has he done? As I recall the story it was this queer blend of straight-forward storytelling with the most fantastical feats thrown in now and then. I would have liked to see that.

But I’ll give these people credit. The story grew on me as it went, and I appreciated the attempt to tell a simple story without any special effects or much fancy photography. The story even goes somewhere that shocked me; I itch to tell you about it so we can discuss, but as it is a genuine surprise (nothing else I’ve written should be) I’ll let you discover it for yourself. (If you do watch BEOWULF AND GRENDEL, let me know so I can talk about it to someone.)

Bottom line, if you are a big fan of Arthur or LOTR for the ruggedness, the swords and horses and straggly beards and wind-swept vistas; that kind of thing, BEOWULF AND GRENDEL is for you. I’m not sure enough casual movie fans would enjoy it, but I ended up doing so, and when it comes right down to it, I care far more about that than whether you will too.

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