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Beowulf and Grendel
A New Interpretation
by Anhoni Patel on Jun 30, 2006
This strange little movie is a new interpretation of the famous epic poem "Beowulf". Written in Old English around 1100 A.D, the tale tells the feats of a great warrior from a Germanic tribe called the Geats, settled in what is now Sweden, named Beowulf. The story was handed down through the oral story tradition over half a century earlier and remains as one the most important pieces of work in English literature.
Icelandic-born director Sturla Gunnarsson returns to the land of his birth and gives the heroic tale a fresh twist. Some might argue that there were one too many artistic liberties taken in this cinematic adaptation. Others might say that it was by time someone finally ventured beyond basic high school English class pronouncements of the symbolism of Grendel and the plight of the Hero.
As the title suggests, Beowulf and Grendel focuses on the first battle (the story is divided into three parts each recounting a battle with a different foe) against Grendel; in addition it also briefly touches upon the second battle with Grendel's mother. Sometimes Grendel is defined as a troll and at other times a giant. Here he is a portrayed as a primitive giant.
A giant of whom Gunnarsson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins paint a very sympathetic picture. After his father is carelessly murdered, a young (and very hairy) Grendel (played by Benedikt Clausen as a child and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as an adult) is seemingly left all alone with only his thoughts of vengeance to sustain him. Years later King Hrothgar of the Danes (Stellan Skarsgård) and his people are being terrorized by a viscous being that is killing off all the men. After Beowulf (Gerard Butler) hears of this, he pledges himself to rid the land of the Danes of their bane.
He travels with his men and rages a campaign to capture and kill the so-called beast. Beowulf soon becomes intrigued by Selma (Sarah Polley), a witch with a gratingly anachronistic American accent who can see people's deaths, and seeks out her "counsel". She is unhelpful and exceptionally fractious. Her role in the story is the most far-fetched in this film. While it has been some years since this reviewer has read "Beowulf", there is no memory of there ever having been a character, witch or otherwise, in the story named Selma, and she definitely didn't have an American accent. Selma's character is quite a departure. And a distracting one at that.
The other departure is the portrayal between good and evil. In the original, the lines were very clear. The poem portrays Beowulf and his battles as full of guts and glory. Here things are a little grayer. Grendel isn't the monster you would have him be and, as result, no longer the epitome of evil. In turn, Beowulf isn't necessarily the spotless savior either.
While these points can be disputed and can cause fraction among "Beowulf" scholars, what cannot be disputed is the spectacular cinematography by Jan Kiesser. The frothy seas and volcanic landscape of Iceland are absorbed by the camera. There are stunning shots of the coast which are, in many cases, more entertaining to behold than the actual story. In fact, why not just ditch the movie altogether, buy a copy of "Beowulf" and hop on a plane directly to Iceland where you can read the poem in the rays of the midnight sun? I can assure you it will be more entertaining.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
by Anhoni Patel on Jun 30, 2006