Appellate Judge Erick Harper once fought with a monster—and then, when he dropped her off at home after curfew, he had to fight with her mother as well.
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum
The epic poem Beowulf, dating from around 500 A.D., is the earliest surviving work of any significant length written in the obscure Germanic dialect that would eventually become English. It has been the subject of intense study and has influenced many more recent works. Lord of the Rings mastermind J.R.R. Tolkien, in his real job as a professor of ancient literature and languages, studied the poem extensively, eventually penning his own translation of it (due for publication soon, according to his heirs) as well as one of the best-regarded scholarly articles about it. The poem's tales of heroism and loyalty have captured many imaginations over the years, influencing many works of literature and cinema to this day.
Now, veterans of Canadian television director Sturla Gunnarsson (DaVinci's Inquest, Rare Birds) and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins (Chasing Cain, Tom Stone) offer up their new, revisionist look at the ancient epic.
Facts of the Case
Hrothgar, King of the Danes (Stellan Skarsgård, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, King Arthur (2004), Deep Blue Sea) finds his kingdom threatened by the murderous rampages of Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, K-19: The Widowmaker, Cold Light), a large, more-or-less humanoid troll. Beowulf (Gerard Butler, The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Dracula 2000), a warrior-prince from Geatland (southern Sweden), hears of Hrothgar's plight and comes to his aid; the Geats owe Hrothgar one, since he came to the aid of Beowulf's father several years previous. Beowulf takes a band of trusted warriors and sets out to do some troll exterminating in Denmark.
Beowulf and Grendel is one of the most beautifully shot films that I have seen in a long time. Gunnarsson had long wanted to shoot a film in his native Iceland, taking advantage of the natural, primal beauty of its landscapes. This majestic Icelandic scenery of glaciers, cliffs, and mountains dominates the film, giving it a truly memorable visual impact. For his part, screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins had been fascinated with Beowulf since he was ten years old and first read a children's version of the story. Since becoming a screenwriter he had always wanted to make a movie of the story, which surprisingly had never been tackled before. The two joined forces and set out to make their dream film of the old poem. They decided early on to keep the special effects to a minimum; CGI was specifically to be eschewed. This old-school approach served the production well, leading to a film refreshingly free of modern glitz in its quest to tell an ancient tale.
The picture quality of this DVD transfer is simply breathtaking, capturing every bit of the starkly gorgeous landscapes of Iceland. Union Station Media may be a relatively minor player in the DVD market, but this disc is every bit as good as the offerings from the major studios. Colors are rich and vivid. Black levels are right on the mark, lending proper definition to brightly lit or nighttime scenes equally well. Very few of the usual DVD issues are in evidence, such as edge enhancement, aliasing, and the like; they may be there in small doses, but for the most part this is an amazingly well-done transfer. Audio is presented in a Dolby 5.1 surround mix that is also top notch, with nice use of atmospheric sounds in the surround channels and nice clarity in the dialogue channel up front.
Union Station has also included a nice selection of extra features. Top of the heap is a commentary track with Gunnarsson and Berzins, with occasional comments from costume designer Debra Hanson and first assistant director Wendy Ord. It's an interesting track, probably focusing a bit too much on the weather-related perils of filming in Iceland for my tastes, but overall very listenable and informative. There is a nice collection of interviews from various cast and crew members, including an extended talk with Butler in his trailer during filming. The featurette "The Wrath of Gods" is a short excerpt from a feature-length documentary of the same name, covering the arduous making of Beowulf and Grendel. Basically, it talks a lot about Butler struggling through the mud and other weather-related thrills. There is a gallery of costume and character sketches and photos; this is, thankfully, short and selective, which gives it much more impact than the endless stacks of meaningless pics heaped on other DVDs. The eight minutes of deleted scenes are pretty unremarkable, and the three minutes of footage comparing storyboards to the opening of the film are interesting but not earth-shaking.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In this version of the story, Gunnarsson and Berzins attempt to work a number of new themes into the old Beowulf legend. There is a tension in the original poem that comes from a change in moral viewpoint. The Beowulf poem is written by an author with a clearly Christian point of view, and yet it records the glories of the old pagan Norse belief system, with its focus on loyalty, hospitality, and glory through feats of bravery. The filmmakers seized on this conflict and make it one of the central themes of their film: the death of the old, Norse world with gods like Odin and Thor, and the birth of a new, Christian era in Northern Europe.
The second major theme they attempt to graft onto the story is the moral that violence begets violence. In this new version of the story, it is not enough that Grendel threatens and terrorizes the Danes; instead, we get to hear about his motivation for killing. In this version he's not just the evil that lurks in the night, oh no. This Grendel only attacks people because he is troubled and misunderstood. Even his name, meaning "grinder," no longer means a grinder of men's bones, but rather a grinder of teeth, because "he was born with bad dreams," whatever that means. And, of course, he's got his reasons for attacking the Danes—mostly because Hrothgar and his pals killed Grendel's father when the troll was but a poor, bearded troll toddler. Thus the ultimate symbol of unknown evil that lurks in the dark is reduced to nothing more than the three-legged dog in the old cowboy joke, wandering into town looking for the man who shot his paw. It's a time-honored storytelling convention, but as presented here it feels forced and cliched.
The face and voice of these new themes come largely from Selma (Sarah Polley, Dawn of the Dead, Go, Guinevere). She is a Dane, from a tribe other than Hrothgar's, captured and made to serve as village whore/sex slave. (Fortunately for Beowulf—and Grendel—she does not discriminate. Geats are apparently welcome—trolls too.) She is also, predictably, a witch, whose otherworldly powers allow her more insight than anyone else in the film. Her purpose in the film is twofold. First, she serves to further illustrate the conflict between the old Norse beliefs and the new Christian ones. Second, her "otherness" as an outcast and sex toy among Hrothgar's people allows her to identify with the ultimate "other" in the film, Grendel. She is able to sympathize with Grendel since they have both been so ill-used by the Danes. I could see a character of this nature working in the film, maybe, with better writing and played by a different actor. Selma, however, does not work. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with Polley's performance. Perhaps it is the feigned world-weariness coupled with smug know-it-all attitude that she chooses to give Selma. Perhaps it is her completely undisguised Twenty-First Century Canadian accent that keeps her from ever blending in convincingly with her Fifth Century surroundings. Perhaps her youthful appearance just wouldn't allow me to buy her as the voice of the ancient Norse ways of life and belief. In any case, she seems out of place, like a random Women's Studies major sent back in time just to make a point.
It is not just Polley's unabashed modernity that sinks the bigger messages that the filmmakers try to expound here. The "violence begets violence" moral is nice, but it overlooks a key point in the script: Hrothgar could have killed toddler Grendel when he killed the troll's father; it was mercy that stayed his hand. Obviously, Hrothgar could have saved himself and his people a lot of trouble had he just offed the little bugger when he had the chance. So what is the moral a viewer is to take from the situation? Is it that we shouldn't kill people/things/trolls just because they are different from us? Is it that if we do choose violence, we should be careful to be thorough and unmerciful? To be fair, on another level there can be the internal conflict between the duties of a man and the duties of a king (as seen in Camelot), but that issue is never really addressed in this film.
Also, the basic Christian/pagan conflict in the film is undercut by the heavy-handedness of Berzins and Gunnarsson's approach. Ambiguity would have been good here, leaving the viewer as much in the dark as the Danes themselves as to which belief system was more valid. Beowulf and Grendel avoids such subtlety, depicting the main Christian presence, an Irish missionary priest, as crazy and subject to seizures, and only right on occasion through dumb luck, while Selma's insights and revelations are accepted without hesitation by the screenplay as totally valid. Leaving some mystery as to who was right or wrong would have better served the dilemma that the Danes face in the film, as they struggle to decide which gods to follow. As it is, the choice seems pretty obvious, and they seem like mere suckers or stooges for choosing the newer faith.
I'm all for seeing the other side of conflicts rather than just lashing out blindly against perceived threats. I understand the message that Berzins and Gunnarsson were trying to send. However, I question whether Beowulf was the right vehicle for their message; right vehicle or not, it surely doesn't resonate the way they intended, coming off as cliched rather than meaningful. The truth is, some evils, some horrors, deserve to remain mysterious, and trying to make them more human or understandable simply ruins their mystique.
Apart from that, however, Beowulf and Grendel is an entertaining and interesting look at this ancient epic. Great performances from Butler and Skarsgård help make the dilemmas of Beowulf and Hrothgar come to life; if it weren't for the excessively modern message intertwined with the legend, this could have been a truly great movie.
This may come as a surprise, but…not guilty! A well-made film that does deliver at least part of the Beowulf legend despite its excessive preachiness. Check it out for the Icelandic scenery, if nothing else.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary Track with Director Sturla Gunnarsson, Writer Andrew Rai Berzins, First A.D. Wendy Ord, and Costume Designer Debra Hanson
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