“How many monsters must I slay? Grendel’s mother, father, Grendel’s uncle? Must I hack down a whole family tree of demons?”
Al’s rating: Listen up, class! If you watch this movie instead of reading the book, you *will* fail the test!
Al’s review: I’ve seen a lot of Beowulf movies. Okay, to be fair, there haven’t been a lot of Beowulf movies, but I’ve tried to make a point of seeing the ones that exist. Christopher Lambert’s 1999 Beowulf was a sci-fi/fantasy retelling and it sucked pretty badly. 2005’s Beowulf and Grendel tried to go the ‘historical epic’ route and it, too, sucked pretty badly. There was a TV movie called Grendel in 2007, but it was produced by the Sci-Fi channel (so it sucked pretty badly) and then there was The 13th Warrior (also in ’99), which did its absolute best to ignore the fact it was Beowulf movie but still managed to suck pretty badly.
So, when I saw yet again that there was a Beowulf movie coming out, this time in IMAX 3-D and starring creepy, uncanny valley Polar Express pod people, I decided that I had suffered enough at the hands of Hollywood and I was going to sit this one out. Why should I continue to subject myself to noble, stoic, boring heroes and crappy Sasquatch monsters and irritating, manufactured period drama? Beowulf is clearly one story they just cannot get right, so screw it.
Man, was I the best kind of wrong.
My first indication that this new Beowulf would be something different is that the script was co-written by Neil Gaiman. While I admit that I haven’t fallen in love with *everything* Neil has ever written, I firmly believe that anything he writes is worth reading. His ability to connect the concrete to the fantastic is unmatched in my mind and his grasp of the weirder side of life has always been captivating. Together with screenwriter Roger Avary, they crafted a script that is both entertaining and marginally faithful to the original story. It even includes the dragon! In a way that sorta makes sense!
The visual effects, too, were something I shouldn’t have worried about. Yes, everyone is a creepy, uncanny valley Polar Express pod person (Robin Wright-Penn looks particularly scary for some reason), but maybe that movie would have been less unsettling if Tom Hanks had been rended limb from limb or the train was being conducted by a naked Angelina Jolie.
In fact, that’s not a bad image to help me transition into the reason why I find this new Beowulf works when so many others have jumped the tracks: because Angelina Jolie is driving the train. Gaiman and Avary are by no means the first writers to morph Grendel’s sea hag mom into a sultry, full-lipped minx, but they *are* the first to let that angle inform the rest of the plot. Grendel’s mom isn’t really onscreen much—maybe a shade over ten minutes, tops—but turning Acid Burn into a temptress instead of a gruesome troll lady becomes a pivot point for all the other major characters of the story. I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that I found the screenplay’s choices to be both unexpected and incredibly clever.
Beowulf is also a rather well-cast movie. Ray Winstone is one of my favorite You-Know-That-Guy actors and while his Beowulf admittedly spends most of the movie just shouting and fighting, he still manages to use the time in between to create a character with a modicum of depth to him. Crispin Glover plays Grendel, who could (and by all expectations should) have been a cheesy special effect, but is instead something I’d almost call terrifying. His body is a pulsing, quivering, misshapen hulk, and Glover really brings it to life with piercing, sorrowful screams and movements that are weirdly inhuman. The cast is rounded out with satisfying performances by Anthony Hopkins as King Hrothgar, John Malkovich as the distrustful Unferth, and Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf’s stalwart companion, Wiglaf.
One final note: looking back over my review, I feel like I may be in danger of overselling Beowulf to you. This is an action movie. If I’ve made it out to be the savior of the genre or a glistening diamond in the rough, please take your expectations down a notch. It’s not a dumb movie, but it is as big and broad and loud and violent a flick as you’re likely to find in the Jason Statham section of your local video store. So take it for what it is: a Beowulf movie that finally made me grin and actually made me want to watch it again. I think that’s recommendation enough.
Louise’s rating: No thanks
Louise’s review: Who were they aiming this film at, I wonder?
Beowulf is okay: pretty much a medieval-themed graphic novel, put to screen. Fifteen-year-old boys would probably enjoy it. It’s a bit like Lord of the Rings, with some burly warriors, a troll and a dragon; and very like 300, made with ‘performance capture’ technology, gore, nudity, and a very shouty man. “I am Beowulf!”, “This is Sparta!”, “I am Louise and I wish you’d shut up and put some clothes on.”
Beowulf also has a passing resemblance to an Anglo-Saxon poem, one which I studied at university, directly for a year, and indirectly for four years. I saw Beowulf first in the cinema, with a host of fellow Anglo-Saxon scholars. We were so thrilled to see something rather obscure and associated with something on the ‘medieval literature’ reading list, something which we were yet dedicating our present lives to, up on a big screen. And what a great cast list it seemed! Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and the Princess Bride herself, cult favourites all.
Somewhat inevitably, I’m biased. The scenes I like in this film are the scenes that are taken directly from the poetry, with all details intact. I think they prove how cinematic the poem is. My favourite lines of dialogue are those I remember translating. I get a pleasant feeling down the back of my spine when I recognize the references.
In the land of the Spear-Danes, before the comfort of Christianity, a well-loved king built a hall for his faithful followers. The noise they made angered the ears of Grendel, a man-eating monster, a dweller of the moors, marshes and lonely places, so much so that the hell-spawned fiend came to the hall in the night. He ripped open the doors, he ripped open the men. No weapon could defeat Grendel. Then, from the land of the Geats, came Beowulf, the prince, the son of Ecgtheow. Beowulf was young, but had already proved himself as a monster-slayer and swimmer. He ripped off the arm of Grendel, but then realized he must do battle with Grendel’s equally fearsome and aqueous mother.
Gee whiz, I love this stuff. The poem is amazing. It’s where Tolkien got all his best ideas. My Old English lecturer used to have a papier mache arm hanging above his office door.
The bits that make me snigger are the new bits. The sniggering started before I’d even opened the DVD box. Blame co-screenwriter Neil Gaiman? Beowulf, our hero, so heroic that he stands out in the rain without a coat, likes to get naked. I mean, he really, really likes to get naked. He’s got a splendid body, I admit. Ray Winstone (a brutally charismatic actor, now in his fifties and rather fat) is probably chuffed that he got to appear looking like that. The problem for the filmmakers is, how are we going to have scenes take place in the nude, and keep the film as a whole rated as a 12? The brilliant solution is to play a little game called Hide the Penis.
Imagine singing that to the tune of ‘Stop the Pigeon’ from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon Dick Dastardly. You’re welcome.
You want some fun? I would never encourage irresponsible use of alcohol, so the drinking rule is, take a sip of not-from-concentrate fruit juice whenever there is unnecessary nudity. Gulp whenever Beowulf’s ‘gentlemanly assets’ are covered by smoke, swords, arms, fingers, candles, fire, monsters etc. Finish the drink and pour another when you realize Angelina Jolie has breasts but no nipples and resembles the oscar statuette. You’re welcome.
Come on, Louise. Be nice. Show respect for all the hard work that went into this.
Seriously, I believe this film to be an interesting failure. It’s interesting because I’m already interested in the story of Beowulf, so otherwise it’s just a failure. The ‘performance capture’ style of animation is rather off-putting, because the human characters are too realistic and yet not realistic enough. They look a bit…well…weird. Maybe that’s why the acting is rather terrible (except for John Malkovich as the cowardly Unferth). The technology does however result in an amazing dragon. I don’t know if you like dragons. If you’re on this site, I imagine you probably do.
Ultimately, a film stands or falls on its story, characters and dialogue. There are some successes and failures here. Fight scenes are excellent (except for the nudity. Beowulf! Put it away!). I truly love the melancholy mood of the second half of the film, which dwells on disillusionment, having a bigger reputation than you can comfortably handle, and being too old for this. The other wonderful themes of the film include the power of stories, songs and poems, and how they matter more than reality, the clash of Christianity and paganism, and the hints that every character has an interesting back story, if only we knew it. Wiglaf, Beowulf’s lieutenant, best friend and conscience, is a great character (although he’s meant to be Beowulf’s protégé, not his contemporary – sorry, there’s that bias again). As for Beowulf himself: I relish his arrogance and superhuman strength. The monster Grendel has a desiccated, rotting look to him – excellently done. It makes sense why the noise would bother him, because the designer has given him enormous sensitive ears, and he also has a pitiful quality that’s rather affecting.
Unfortunately, in their attempts to rationalize a tatty and disjointed medieval legend into a modern story arc, the writers made a dreadful blunder. They took Grendel’s mother, who is a monster like Grendel, and turned her into Angelina Jolie in gold body paint and a tail. How do the genetics of that work? Doesn’t matter, she’s hot! Grendel’s mom has got it goin’ on! High five! Make her have sex with everyone! </sarcasm> Yeah, that’s a step too far for me. Grendel’s mother is the one bit that Beowulf and Grendel (Gerard Butler as Beowulf, released about the same time, but only I think in continental Europe) did better than Beowulf.
I’m not impressed by Beowulf. In fact I’m rather annoyed, because it got quite a lot right, then blew it. Try it if you liked 300. Try it if you enjoy early medieval legends, particularly Anglo-Saxon/German/Scandinavian legends, by Odin! Try it if you want to see a lot of computer generated bare bottoms. Just don’t bother otherwise.
- Pick up a book for once, ya punk! Seamus Heaney translated the poem beautifully, if you don’t want to learn Old English and read the original text.
- Unferth’s slave is named Cain–I assume a reference to Grendel and his mother, who are popularly described as being descended from the biblical Cain.
- Grendel and his mom speak Old English to each other. This made me [Al] do little, unmanly squees of joy.
- I couldn’t find it transcribed or it would be in the Quotes section, but I really dig the bawdy little shanty Beowulf’s men sing in Hrothgar’s hall.
- The Grendel fight really gives off a strong Austin Powers vibe, no?
- Wow, Beowulf is, like, Ken-doll hairless from the neck down.
- I love King Beowulf going all Martin Riggs on the Frisian. KILL ME! KILL ME!
Grendel’s Mother: Are you the one they call Beowulf? The Bee-Wolf. The bear. Such a strong man you are with the strength of a king. The king you will one day become.
Beowulf: I am Ripper… Tearer… Slasher… Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength… and Lust… and Power! I AM BEOWULF!
Wiglaf: Do you want me to go in with you?
Beowulf: I am Beowulf and I’m here to kill your monster.
Wiglaf: He was the bravest of us. He was the prince of all warriors. His name will live forever.
Wealthow: His song shall be sung forever.
Beowulf: Keep a memory of me, not as a king or a hero; but as a man: fallible and flawed.
Wiglaf: [stabbing Grendel in the groin] I swear, the bastard has no pintel!
Unferth: Good night, Beowulf. Watch out for sea monsters. I’m sure your imagination must be teeming with them.
Beowulf: How many monsters must I slay? Grendel’s mother, father, Grende’s uncle? Must I hack down a whole family tree of demons?
Beowulf: You want your name in The Song of Beowulf? You think it sould end with me killed by some Frisian raider with no name?
Frisian Leader: I’m Finn of Frisia and my name shall be remembered forever!
Beowulf: Only if you kill me. Otherwise you’re nothing.
If you liked this movie, try these
- Beowulf (1999)