Beowulf & Grendel has a lot going for it. And although there are occasional production problems, on the whole, Beowulf & Grendel entertains and gives a look into a different time and way of life.
First, the story. Yes, it is the story of Beowulf. It hasn’t been modernized, animated, or Disneyfied. It’s the real deal, set to film.
I confess I haven’t read the poem, one of the oldest extant works in the English language. But it seems to me that Beowulf & Grendel is a good introduction. Still, a little background would have been helpful before watching the movie (since some of the dialogue was so accented as to be difficult to understand), so pay attention:
The time is 500 A.D. The place is northern Europe. Beowulf of the Geat tribe is a hero in the prime of his life. He learns that the king of the Danes is having trouble with a vicious troll, so Beowulf and his men travel to Daneland to do battle.
Having lost a score of healthy men to the troll, The Danes welcome Beowulf, although they don’t seem to be telling him everything. A whore with second sight, brought to Daneland by a man whose nickname was “three legs,” fills in some of the details for the visiting hero.
For example, she knows that the troll has a name: Grendel, which means grinder. (“Of bones?” asks Beowulf. “No,” explains Selma, “of teeth.” It seems the vicious Grendel is troubled by bad dreams.)
It would be easy to imagine this film skewing too close to an action movie or a special-effects extravaganza, but the telling of this story is better than that. Granted, action and special effects would not have ruined it — on the contrary, the film could have done better on both counts — but the moral simplicity that goes along with movies aimed at 13-year-old boys would have ruined it.
Instead, the story reveals a surprising complexity and maturity. (Not having read the source material, I’m not sure whether it’s in the material or in the adaptation.) Grendel, for example, is anything but a simple monster. He has a name. He has issues. We know enough about him that we can sympathize with him. (A novel and a recent opera told from Grendel’s point of view see the same thing).
It does the filmmakers credit that Grendel looks so much like a normal human. Michael Crichton speculated that the story of Beowulf and Grendel may have been about late conflicts between modern humans and Neanderthals (an idea explored in his novel Eaters of the Dead, and made into the movie The 13th Warrior). To me, that is a fascinating historical possibility, and one of the most interesting angles on this ancient tale. If it were true, Grendel could have been Beowulf’s kin. Indeed, the gray area in the difference between monster and hero seems to provide much of this story’s emotional weight.
The production of Beowulf & Grendel is excellent. Filmed in Iceland, the setting has a raw, ancient power that permeates every exterior scene. The primitive costumes help sell the illusion of sixth-century Europe. Watching the film, you can really understand how hard Viking life must have been: small tribes of people, isolated by barren and freezing lands, with no such thing as “civilization” within half a continent.
There are a small handful of scenes where the production could have been better. The lighting of the night scenes isn’t very sophisticated. The one big battle scene is pretty bad by action-movie standards. And the troll suit worn by Ingvar Sigurdsson reveals folded rubber instead of rippling muscle in a few glimpses. But the overall sense of the film is that it is wonderfully produced and very convincing.
The casting and the acting are a mixed bag. Each performance is strong on its own. Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie) plays Beowulf with perfect action-hero confidence. Sara Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) is stoic and strong-willed, as any tough single mother would be. Stellan Skaarsgard’s king of the Danes is past his prime, and he knows it. He’s often drunk or complaining about losing his power. Maybe Skaarsgard just amplifies what is written into the character, but he makes for an interesting, well-rounded character, and a nice counterpoint to the hero who is in the prime of his life.
Beowulf & Grendel has epic possibilities, though granted, not an epic budget. It’s a wonderful piece of time travel, and it tells a good story well.
I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that it’s not getting a bigger release. Perhaps I’m more fascinated by the dark ages than most. I like to see what human life was like without civilization, and a well-produced movie is an excellent way to take a peek. I liked The 13th Warrior and really wanted to like The Reckoning. I was even one of the few critics with a soft spot for the movie adaptation of Crichton’s Timeline. And perhaps I’ll be in the minority for Beowulf & Grendel, too.
Then again, maybe next year’s movie adaptation of Beowulf by the makers of The Polar Express will bring the rest of the country around to my point of view. I say beat the crowds and give Beowulf & Grendel a try.