Retelling old tales filtered through modern sensibility seems to be the thing to do these days. The recent films “Troy” and “King Arthur” are examples of this, where the mystical/supernatural elements that made the original stories so compelling are stripped away in favor of 20th Century sociopolitical incongruities like emancipated women and warriors in touch with their feminine side. The results have been disappointingly pedestrian films. (Compare the woad-encrusted “King Arthur” with John Boorman’s dazzlingly brutal “Excalibur” if you don’t see what I’m getting at.) And so it is with “Beowulf & Grendel,” Icelandic director Sturla Gunnarsson’s revisionist take on the epic poem ‘Beowulf.’
Those who remember their high school English Literature curriculum will recall that ‘Beowulf’ is one of the most famous heroic adventure tales in recorded history. An Anglo-Saxon legend originally written in lilting ‘Old English’ (I’m sure many can also recall having to translate that gobbledygook as I did), ‘Beowulf’ told the story of the great titular Norse warrior who comes to the aid of the embattled King Hrothgar as his warriors are being decimated nightly by a vicious monster called Grendel. Much ruthless violence and slaughter ensues, resulting in a satisfying read.
Gunnarsson’s film takes the legend as a base, but veers way off to the left in its interpretation of the action. We still have the same main characters — the embattled (and often drunk) King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard, “Ronin”), the great hero Beowulf (Gerard Butler, “Reign of Fire”) and, of course, the monster Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson, “K-19: The Widowmaker”). Only this time Grendel is not some reptilian beast, but rather a troll (movie speak for a really big guy with poor diction and even poorer hygiene) with serious vengeance issues. According to Gunnarsson’s take on the legend, Grendel wasn’t a blood-thirsty monster, but rather a misunderstood brute with very legitimate reasons for his campaign of violence. More Frankenstein’s Monster than Cathoga, if you will.
And that’s the biggest problem with “Beowulf and Grendel”. By making Grendel a focal character, Gunnarsson has obligated himself to developing him as a fully fleshed entity. Since the original legend said little of Grendel, it leaves Gunnarsson with plenty of leeway, but requires plenty of work. Unfortunately, we get little in this regard beyond Grendel’s base instincts of loyalty and revenge. Gunnarsson gives it the old college try, but comes up pretty short.
The director is more successful with the static period detail. The warriors’ ships and armor look authentic and Iceland ‘s stunning and terrifyingly beautiful scenery give the film a medieval look and feel. Unfortunately, the period detail doesn’t extend to the dialogue. We’re supposed to be watching a story written in the 10th Century about Danes and Geats (ostensibly the Dutch) that lived in the 6th Century, but are greeted with a thoroughly modern level of profanity delivered with an assortment of English, Scottish and Irish accents. It’s rather amusing and takes the film out of time and place, but hell, if Sean Connery can play a Spaniard…
The other glaring error in the film is the total miscasting of Sarah Polley (“Dawn of the Dead”). In one of the most anachronistic performances since Keanu Reeves ‘whoa!’-ed and ‘dude!’-ed his way through “Much Ado About Nothing,” Polley plays a wild haired witch who knows more about Grendel than any person should. Her approach to the character, more akin to an NYU Women’s Studies graduate student than a medieval wench, is so jarring that even Butler’s phlegmy Scottish brogue seems normal by comparison.
“Beowulf & Grendel” is a strange film indeed. You can see quite obviously what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish, but the finished product is a muddled mess of mixed signals and motivations. Not quite a swords and sorcery hack and slash and not quite a poignant social satire, “Beowulf & Grendel” is stuck in a dubious middle ground as sticky as the mud Beowulf slogs through in his first appearance on screen and not even the glorious scenery can extricate it.
Sturla Gunnarsson (director) / Anonymous (epic poem Beowulf), Andrew Rai Berzins (screenplay)
CAST: Gerard Butler …. Beowulf
Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson …. Grendel
Stellan Skarsgard …. King Hrothgar
Sarah Polley …. Selma
Eddie Marsan …. Brendan the Celt