Beowulf & Grendel
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Beowulf & Grendel

One of the very first pieces of English literature is the medieval epic poem, Beowulf. Dating back to sometime between 700 – 1000 CE the language in the original form is almost unreadable by a person only familiar with the modern form of the language. For a story that has lasted well over a millennium the one thing that deserves stating is it has past the test of time. One reason is the themes explored in this story are among the most basic known to man. This is a tale of betrayal, revenge and heroic deeds set in a bleak and desolate world where kings ruled by the sword and laws were still forming. Although Christianity was spreading this world was still mostly pagan, praying to their gods for success in battle.

The story opens sometime in the early part of the 5th century, somewhere in the land that would eventually become Denmark. Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård), king of Daneland, is leading a group of his warriors, chasing a large, brutish man (Spencer Wilding) and his son, Grendel (Hringur Ingvarsson). The pair is trapped, the small army behind them and only a sharp cliff in front. He father urges his son to climb to a ledge just under the cliff and hide from their attackers. The boy does so just in time. The men come upon the massive troll and shoot him with their arrows. The King dismounts and sees the young troll cowering below. Hrothgar is moved and spares the boy’s life. Later the boy walks along the land beneath the cliff and finds his father’s body. Unable to move the corpse he beheads it and takes the head off to safety.

Years later the boy has grown to adulthood. Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) is now as large and fierce as his father. With his strength at its peak, the time has come to get his revenge on the King and his men. Grendel prepares for the task by bloodying his forehead with stones letting the blood flow over his face. A little later Hrothgar enters his great hall to find all of his men slaughtered. Overwhelmed with depression, the king turns to Hygelac (Mark Lewis), king of Geatland for assistance. He gives his permission for the great warrior Beowulf (Gerard Butler) to go to the aid of Hrothgar taking with him a dozen Geats along. When Beowulf and his men arrive in the village, they find the people in a state of disarray. Depressed by the recent events and pressured by a Celtic monk to convert to Christianity the villages don’t seem to know what to do next. The next visit from Grendel seems puzzling. Instead of fighting Beowulf and his men the troll flees. Needing to understand his foe better Beowulf seeks the help of a local witch, Selma (Sarah Polley). She informs the hero that the reason Grendel refused to fight was Beowulf had committed no wrong against him. Grendel only wants to avenge the death of his father. The mystery begins to unfold when Beowulf is head by a Christianized village to the cave lair of Grendel. There he discovers the mummified head of Grendel’s father. One of Beowulf’s men smashes the head in a fit of anger. Later the village is found dead. Beowulf investigates the events that lead up to the slaughter and concludes that Grendel had once visited Selma raping her. Grendel now adds to his revenge by killing the Geats man who destroyed the last reminder of his father.

So many genres started with the tale of Beowulf and Grendel. On the most superficial level, it is a good old fashion monster story, the creature bringing havoc to the defenseless villagers who have to turn to a hero to save them. Then there is the classic theme of revenge. In this genre, certain rules have to apply. First, the one seeking revenge has to be focused only on those who have wronged him. To this end, Grendel is initially unwilling to fight Beowulf and his men since they were not responsible for the death of his father. There is also plenty of action here as animal-skin clad warriors fight with primitive swords.

Icelandic director Sturla Gunnarsson has had a career more familiar to an American audience than most of his countrymen. He has made a name for himself directing episodes of various television series as well as the TV movie Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol. Taking on a dark story such as this is a brave move for the director. He almost gets it right. The setting of the story is before scenery that is desolate and barren, but it is filmed beautifully. Visually this film is stunning. On the downside, the film doesn’t hold together completely. The script plots along too often dragging the production down. Gunnarsson focuses more on the psychological aspects of the tale. Was Grendel a monster or just a misunderstood and abused victim?

This is truly an international cast. Scottish actor Gerard Butler plays Beowulf over the top and larger than life. Considering the source material, it fits here. He may be best known for a similar performance on the other side of the coin as the mysterious villain in the most recent version of ‘Phantom of the Opera.' Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson does well as the antagonist of the piece. He conveys the inner turmoil that Grendel faces and allows the audience to connect with his character emotionally. Stellan Skarsgård seems to be stuck in angst mode. He is given little opportunity here to display any range and as such fails to give the proper dimensionality to the King. Miscast here is the Canadian actress Sarah Polley. I have been a fan of hers since such films as Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. Her acting talent here is almost entirely unused. She played Selma more as a modern feminist than a witch in the 5th century. Polley is typically a fearless actress willing to take dangerous parts, but here there is little for her to use to display her ability. I hope her career will survive the scene where she has sex with Grendel.

Anchor Bay once again gives their best transfer to the DVD release of this film. The technical specifications are excellent. The scenery is done justice with the anamorphic 2.35:1 video. The colors while foreboding are beautifully transferred. With the lighting often low key the contrast is significant, and here it is right on the money. There is no sign of artifacts even when light and dark are juxtaposed. The Dolby 5.1 audio is adequately providing a broad ambiance. The rear speakers add realism while the subwoofer punctuates the battles. There is also a nice assortment of extras provided. Director Sturla Gunnarsson and by Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins are featured in the audio commentary pontificating on the literary importance of the work. There is also a mini-documentary, ‘Wrath of Gods’ which details the background of the tale and some deleted scenes. This is a lot better than getting through the old English translation of English Literature 101, but the film could have been produced a bit better.

Posted 9/9/06            06/06

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