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Beowulf  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 16 November 2007

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Film Rating:
3.5
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“I’m Beowulf,” says the hero (many times), “and I’m here to kill your monster.”

This naked, boastful assertion, made early in “Beowulf,” strongly suggests that director Robert Zemeckis is well aware that he’s walking at the brink of sheer camp. A certain layer of knowing wit underlies much of this boy-howdy-is-it-ever-epic movie, but the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary never quite tumbles into the abyss, not even when Grendel’s slinky mother voluptuously advances on our hero in high heels. The movie avoids committing camp largely by this not-quite-self-conscious approach, by use of occasional gory violence, and by the sheer bravado of much of its telling.

“Beowulf,” as former college students surely know, is the oldest known Anglo-Saxon tale, a long, epic poem of heroic deeds by the legendary warrior, or thane, Beowulf. Though it originates in the British Isles, the tale of “Beowulf” is set among Danes and other Scandinavians. Depending on the translation, it’s possible to find the tale entertaining and illuminating, but usually students are given the original text to slog through. (In “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen warns about taking any college class requiring the reading of “Beowulf.”)

Zemeckis, Gaiman (a great writer of comic books/graphic novels, also a novelist) and Avary (co-writer of “Pulp Fiction”) have wisely interlaced the first two parts of “Beowulf,” the battles with Grendel and Grendel’s mother, with the last third, in which Beowulf is confronted with a fierce dragon. Here, the dragon is a result of Beowulf’s secret shame, the one time this brave warrior acted dishonorably. This turns Beowulf into a tragedy of classical proportions: the great hero brought down by his failings. There’s also a sense of broader shame, of fathers refusing to acknowledge their sons.

“Beowulf” was made in much the same manner as Zemeckis’ earlier “Polar Express:” actors in motion-capture rigs were photographed (by over 200 cameras simultaneously); these images drove the computer graphic animation, resulting in life-like movements. This time, motion capture (or as the filmmakers pompously prefer, “performance capture”) was also used on faces, usually to good, though not great, effect. In the case of the characters mimed (if that’s the right term) by Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie, the actors’ real faces seem to have been transferred to the screen; this makes them vividly more realistic than those around them, a kind of mismatch that can be distracting.

It’s hard to say whether “Beowulf” can be considered to be an animated film, but it’s also definitely not live action. Most of the time, this technique, whatever its name, works reasonably well, but also allows spectacular variations, such as the monster Grendel and the giant red-gold dragon of the climax.

Whatever it is, it’s presented on a giant scale. The movie is being widely released on IMAX and in especially effective 3D. The image at the screening I saw was so large I often couldn’t see the corners of the giant frame; I felt enveloped in the movie. If you wish to see “Beowulf,” I urge you to see it in both IMAX and 3D. It is also being released in standard formats and flat, but the film was specifically designed for 3D presentation; it should be given its due.

It’s 8th century Denmark. Aging King Hrothgar (Hopkins), once a great warrior, frequently holds boisterous revels in his mead hall, Heorot. His much younger wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), is in attendance, though feels apart from the drunken throng around her. One night, we see the sounds rise to the rafters, along which a rat scuttles. The camera follows it outside, where it’s picked up by a swooping bird of prey; the camera, as if hung from the bird’s neck, flies upward across the frozen planes through the naked branches of a forest, on to a cave. (At the climax, the dragon flies the same route in reverse.) The noise arouses and infuriates Grendel (Crispin Glover), a misshapen—to say the least—monster some 18 feet tall.

Bent, broken, his flesh decaying on his bones, his skull twisted, his jaw protruding, Grendel is a fearsome, almost revolting sight, and he’s fiercely angry. He bursts into Heorot in a swiftly-edited battle, killing one thane after another—but sparing Hrothgar. In the original poem, supposedly this is somehow linked to Christianity, just beginning to make a foothold in Scandinavia, but in this movie, the reason is different.

Horrified by the carnage, Hrothgar seals Heorot, and calls for a hero to save his kingdom from Grendel. Out on the stormy seas, the huge blonde warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) approaches, trading manly quips with his right-hand man Wiglaf (Brenan Gleeson). Hrothgar already knows Beowulf, having been friends with the thane’s father. He believes Beowulf’s bold boasts, and shows him a prize golden drinking horn carved with the figure of a dragon. His speech and the camera angles suggest that when Hrothgar offers Beowulf the dragon horn if he’ll defeat Grendal, he’s also offering Beowulf his wife Wealthow.

Hrothgar’s man Unferth (John Malkovich) is skeptical of Beowulf’s claims to heroism, and asks why if he was defeated in a swimming contest, anyone should believe he could defeat Grendel? Beowulf tells his tale of the swimming contest, which he lost because he killed giant one-eyed sea monsters (in one shocking cut, he bursts OUT of a monster’s eye). Unferth sneers disbelievingly that he heard there were twelve. “Nine,” says granite-jawed Beowulf. (“Last time I heard this,” whispers Wiglaf, “there were three.”)

Hrothgar’s men leave Heorot to Beowulf and his own thanes, a lusty lot. He realizes mere weaponry won’t work against Grendel, so Beowulf strips to the nude (amusingly, his groin is usually hidden by something of phallic shape) and awaits Grendel’s arrival.

The twisted monster does burst in, right through the giant timber barring the door. He wreaks havoc, slaughtering some of Beowulf’s men (he eats the head of one of them; the camera hold on his face while he chews), but soon takes on Beowulf himself. The warrior does prevail by ripping off one of Grendel’s arms. The monster staggers back to his cave, expiring in the loving arms of his so-far unseen mother (Jolie).

Another night, and she does something terrible to Beowulf’s men, so he goes alone to her cave—Wiglaf waits outside—to confront Grendel’s mother, but he lies about what really happens. He returns, is proclaimed a hero, and soon becomes king of the Danes.
Fifty years later, he is still king, defeating invading Frisians almost by sheer force of legendary fame and overwhelming personality—but then that golden horn returns, the emblem of Beowulf’s secret shame. It is followed by that gigantic dragon.

“Beowulf” looks sensational, with its snowy landscapes, wine-dark mead halls, caves that look like giant rib cages, and three varieties of monster. The story is told on an epic scale, and looks awesome on the IMAX screen—almost a moving tapestry. Adding 3D to this makes the experience dazzling, almost overwhelming; it’s so fiercely gigantic that it’s hard to take it all in at once.

But it’s also hard to take in because the pacing is uneven. The opening, up through Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, moves quickly and offers lots of splendid 3D imagery—snow falling, fiery coals scattered, the dank wood and stone walls of Heorot, Grendel’s deep, dark cave, Grendel himself. There’s always something amazing to look at—but then the momentum slows, beginning with Beowulf’s confrontation with Grendel’s mother. The pace slows, despite the sensual depiction of Jolie’s character and her own sinuous, alluring voice.

When the story leaps ahead some 50 years, the pace does not pick up, until the advent of the big flying dragon. Though Beowulf’s battle with the fire-breathing monster is edited and depicted brilliantly, the battle itself goes on too long—you simply lose interest in the outcome. And finally, the last wordless confrontation between Wiglaf and Grendel’s mother is also overextended, a soft, weak ending to this usually vigorous movie.

The screenplay is often creative in terms of dialogue, and some of the actors, such as Hopkins and Gleeson, handle it extremely well—you can hear their pasts in their words. Hrothgar is especially well depicted; we see clearly that he was once a great warrior—he fearlessly confronts Grendel alone—and that he’s been brought low by age and too much mead. Gleeson is the trusted sidekick to a great warrior, more Robin than Sancho Panza; he loves Beowulf, but is always there to remind Beowulf of what heroes must do.

Ray Winstone works hard at making Beowulf a more specific character than Great Flawed Hero, but the dialogue works against him; Beowulf is a man of action, not words—and there’s no safety net in the words he does have. Visually, Beowulf is magnificent (though his face is not especially expressive), but it’s almost as if there’s no there there. He has one great dialogue scene, when he’s an aging king himself, and faces off against a lone Frisian invader. You can believe it when the warrior is defeated by the intensity of Beowulf’s personality. Despite an effort to have Beowulf occasionally almost unmanned by the sight of beauty, this doesn’t compensate for the lack of sharp dialogue, as in his encounter with Grendel’s mother—he seems ineffectual and false, even trivial; he’s not a hero conquered by his own weakness.

But the whole movie has a sufficiently epic sweep that it does not dishonor this ancient tale. For many years, movies paid no heed at all to “Beowulf;” in the last ten years, there have been several movies retelling the legend of the Scandinavian warrior, including one that transposed the story to a future setting. Few of these films made much of an impression, and only one of them was released theatrically in the U.S.—and that one only on a limited basis.

Bob Zemeckis’ take on the tale is grand and glorious, a visual treasure not quite like any other movie ever made. It’s definitely for adults—the gore is plentiful, the language occasionally coarse (though not explicit) and there’s both male and female nudity. It’s an action story with monsters, lots of action and an epic sweep. Most of the time there’s that layer of wit that keeps the film from becoming overstated, but at times Zemeckis slips, and the pace slows while events become ponderous.

There now have been enough of these semi-animated CGI-realized films to constitute a small genre of their own—“Final Fantasy” and “The Polar Express” are two of them. (“300” wasn’t—that’s mostly real people in a computer-created background) “Beowulf” is easily the best so far; it has an experienced director and an excellent cast; it does have its weaknesses, but for movie buffs, this is something you probably shouldn’t miss. Remember: it will not be in 3D on home video.







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