There have only been a few times I have been genuinely surprised at what I find at our local WalMart. Yesterday was one of those times. The last thing I expected to see on its DVD racks was Beowulf and Grendel, a Canadian/Icelandic co-production adapting the classic poem. Naturally, as someone with a keen interest in Old English literature and ancient Germanic culture, I had to buy it and watch it right away.
Beowulf and Grendel is loyal to the bare bones plot of the first part of the poem (in which Beowulf arrives to help King Hrothgar of Denmark with the monster Grendel), although it does depart from the poem in several respects. The movie strips away the Christian colouring of the poem, making the movie to a large degree more historically accurate than the poem itself (in 5th Century Denmark, Christianity was little heard of, save as a religion practised by such other peoples as the Franks and Romans). It also humanises both Grendel and Beowulf. Grendel is still monstrous, a hulking humanoid which the Danes and Geats call a "troll (as accurate a term as any, given the poem refers to Grendel as an "eoten," a term cognate to Old Norse jotunn, "giant")," but he has a motivation other than sheer blood thirst for killing Hrothgar's men. Beowulf (played by Gerard Butler, perhaps best known for Phantom of the Opera) is still suitably heroic, but a hero who sometimes doubts his own heroism and questions the rightness of his actions. The movie even has a good deal of humour (which is present in the original poem, at least if one can read the original Old English....). None of this robs the original story of its power, but rather makes it a different sort of story--one that is in some respects more human and which, I feel, the Angles and Saxons who heard the original could still identify with.
Indeed, what makes Beowulf and Grendel even more marvelous for aficianodos of the Dark Ages is that it could well be the most accurate portrayal of life among the Germanic peoples ever presented on film. Indeed, while other films (such as The Vikings and The 13th Warrior) only give lip service to the ancient Germanic religion (often getting things wrong in the process), Beowulf and Grendel not only gets it right, but makes it clear that religion played an important part in ancient Germanic life. Indeed, Beowulf and Grendel is the only film in which I have seen an accurate portrayal of an ancient Germanic blessing! For that matter, the clothing, the weapons, and the architecture are all authentic.
Of course, all of this would be for naught if not for strong performances. Gerard Butler is entirely convincing as Beowulf, the hero who sometimes doubts he is indeed a hero. Stellan Skarsgard does a great job as Hrothgar, the king who is at the end of his rope. The performances are greatly aided by the direction of Sturla Gunnarsson, who has a true gift for the camera. The landscape (Iceland standing in for Denmark) is truly stunning and Gunnarsson makes good use of it. It is hard to believe that most of Gunnarson's work was in television!
That is not to say that Beowulf and Grendel is not without its flaws. Given that it is an international production, there are at times a dizzying arrays of accents in the film. There is Gerard Butler and Rory McCann's slight Scottish brogues, Stellan Skargard's slight Swedish accent, and Sarah Polley's Canadian accent (she has come a long way since Avonlea). At times this can be a distracting, especially when one would expect the Geats and Danes to all speak with the same accent (at that time history those particular peoples would have spoken Old Norse)! I also think the confrontation between Beowulf and Unferth could have been handled better, although given that had they used the exact text in the poem they may have been accused of ripping off The 13th Warrior (which was based on Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which also drew upon Beowulf for inspiration), I suppose I can't blame them.
Regardless, Beowulf and Grendel is a fine picture, one that is moving, beautiful, and even authentic to the era in which it is set. Even if one does not love Old English literature, ancient Germanic culture, or ancient myths, I rather suspect any movie lover would enjoy this film.
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