Film-Forward Review: [BEOWULF & GRENDEL]

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Gerard Butler as Beowulf
Photo: Union Station/Truly Indie

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Director: Sturla Gunnarsson.
Produced by: Paul Stephens, Eric Jordan, Sturla Gunnarsson, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan & Anna Maria Karlsdottir.
Written by: Andrew Rai Berzins, based on the poem Beowulf.
Director of Photography: Jan Kiesser.
Edited by: Jeff Warren.
Music: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson.
Released by: Union Station/Truly Indie.
Country of Origin: Canada/Iceland/UK. 103 min. Rated R.
With: Gerard Butler, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Stellan Skarsgard & Sarah Polley.

Reinventing the epic poem of Beowulf, which some of us likely remember struggling over in high school English, seems a rather daunting task. First of all, the oldest surviving epic in British literature was written in about 1000, and its Old English is indecipherable to modern day English-speakers. But Sturla Gunnarsson’s take on the ancient Scandinavian warrior tale is surprisingly true to its source (though the dialogue is, thankfully, updated to English we can understand), and surprisingly captivating in its ability to keep the viewer entertained through what might otherwise be a somewhat cumbersome plot.

Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) encapsulates the very essence of the Hercules-esque Beowulf, who is all the more endearing because of his ability to use reason over pure physical strength – a trait that never surfaced in the original tale. In fact, the new Beowulf departs in some significant ways from the Old English poem, particularly because Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson) – the merciless monster who raids the Danes and battles Beowulf – is greatly humanized in the film version. Gunnarsson’s decision to convert Grendel into a troll (he looks more like a tall wrestler on steroids) rather than a gory-looking monster was a smart one, since a movie monster usually ends up looking more comical than scary. And secondly, the audience wouldn’t have been able to empathize so deeply with Grendel otherwise, particularly because he is wronged by King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) and driven to revenge. (In the beginning, the Danes, led by Hrothgar, kill Grendel’s father). Thus, the monster is attributed with human emotions. He even has his own version of language – though it sounds more like howling than actual speaking.

This personification of Grendel is reminiscent of John Gardner’s Grendel, a modern retelling of Beowulf entirely from the monster’s point of view, revealing Grendel, through beautifully lyrical language, as a tormented, masochistic, but extremely poetic creature. Gunnarsson’s retelling evokes a similar Grendel, though Beowulf’s heroism is not compromised. We seem to sympathize with both characters, which is rather peculiar considering they are enemies. Beowulf even rethinks his looming battle with Grendel when Selma (Sarah Polley), the wise and beautiful burgundy-haired outcast, warns him: “Be careful with what you don’t understand.”

Besides heroism, the film explores other thought-provoking themes. Depicting the religious indoctrination occurring during this time period, the village priest implores the Danes to accept Christ if they want to be saved from Grendel. But all the while, Gunnarsson and writer Andrew Rai Berzins throw in comic relief (a drunken Hrothgar and bawdy humor), creating a film that doesn’t take itself too solemnly. Parisa Vaziri
July 7, 2006



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