Saturday, March 23, 2013

Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

Director: Sturla Gunnarsson                              Writer: Andrew Rai Berzins
Film Score: Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson                    Cinematography: Jan Kiesser
Starring: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, Ingvar Sigurðsson and Sarah Polley

I did quite a bit of research before selecting a version of the Beowulf story, and in going with Beowulf and Grendel I was not disappointed. It has a great cast of actors, and a wonderful script that, while certainly modern in conception, packs a good deal of entertainment into what could otherwise be a grim story. Gerard Butler, who would later be launched into stardom in 300, plays the hero, Beowulf. And Stellan Skarsgård, best remembered as Gerald Lambeau from Good Will Hunting, is onboard as the king. But almost every other aspect of the film is equally great, from the cinematography, the set design, costumes, makeup, right down to the score. This is a wonderful film.

The screenplay makes a brilliant interpretation of Beowulf myth by moving the story from Beowulf himself to Heorot, Daneland, where a great number of the king’s men have been slaughtered and beheaded by the troll Grendel. When Beowulf hears of the tragedy he comes to help, but is left in the dark, not only about why Grendel is attacking the king’s people, but why the king himself has been left untouched. The prologue to the film tells us why. Grendel’s father is killed by the king, for no reason we can discern, and leaves the young boy Grendel on the side of a cliff to die. But Grendel’s hatred grows until he is old enough to seek his revenge. Rather than telling the life story of Beowulf, the script focuses on the life of Grendel and turns it from a myth/fantasy to a historical drama, much to the film’s benefit and the audience’s satisfaction. Even the documentary on the making of the film, Wrath of Gods, won several film awards.

By far the most negative criticism against the film is for its script, which is far more modern that most critics were comfortable with. It first it was confusing for me, but then I realized that it’s the way they would have talked to each other back then. Of course, from our perspective a millennium and a half later it seems too modern, but miring the production in faux medieval speech would have been too distancing to the spirit of the film. I would argue that the only way a modern audience can really see the relationships between these people in the way they would have been, is to see them relate in a way we can understand: our own modern speech. My only criticism is that Sarah Polley, who was so fantastic in John Adams, was not instructed to attempt some kind of accent. In the midst of all the European actors, her flat, Midwest accent is incredibly jarring.

In the end, it’s a beautiful historical production of a story that hasn’t been told in this way before. It brings to mind the Vikings series on The History Chanel in terms of its ability to make the time period believable and still relevant to a modern audience. Butler and Skarsgård are just fantastic, and the rest of the cast does a nice job as well. My personal favorite part of the whole film is the way Christianity is shown for what it really is, and it makes me happy that more works, Vikings included, are brave enough to demonstrate that Christianity is no different that any of the other dead religions in the world. I can’t recommend Beowuf and Grendel enough. If you see just one Beowulf film, make this the one.

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