Beowulf & Grendel

5 out of 10


The Epic That Should Have Been

Hot on the heels of “Lord of the Rings” and in the recent tradition of remaking tales-of-yore such as "Alexander," "Troy" and "King Arthur,” Icelandic-Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson has returned to his Scandinavian roots and the home of his birth to direct the live action epic "Beowulf & Grendal." Closely following the legend passed down through generations, with some additions by scriptwriter and Ottawa native Andrew Rai Berzins, it was made in co-operation with Canada’s Eurasia Motion Pictures, UK’s Spice Factory, and Iceland's Bjolfskvida and features an up-and-coming international cast and crew including Scottish actor Gerald Butler (“Dear Frankie”), Iceland's Ingvar Siggurdssen (“K-19 Widowmaker”) and Sweden’s Stellan Skarsgard ("Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark"). Unfortunately however, for all concerned, Gunnersson is no Peter Jackson, more of a Uwe Boll from the world of TV soaps.

Set in a heroic era of brave sword-weilding Scandanavian warriors, philosophical kings, beautiful queens and mysterious seers, the picture opens on the Danish shores of the 6th century AD. We are introduced to the tale of how the Grendel has become Grendel. King of the Danes, Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard), leaves the Hall of Heorot to seek out and kill Grendal's father (Spencer Wilding), an innocent outsider. Deciding to spare the young Grendel, he unknowingly sows the seeds of doom for those residing in the Danish kingdom. Years later, in a fit of fury, Grendel wreaks vengeance on those in Heorot and in the wake of the Dane’s shock and grief, Beowulf, the hero of Geatland (Gerald Butler), returns to their shores. Hearing the tales of the battle, he vows to avenge the death of the king and to free the people of Heorot from the wraith of the murderous monster.

A simple tale retold over hundreds of years and only put to paper in 1000 AD, Gunnarsson attempts not only to retell the first half of the thousand year old legend but with the assistance of Berzins, has rewritten the film from Grendel's point of view. Adding some twists of their own, they have turned the tale into a modern parable - examining themes of war and aggression. Inspired by modern genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, Berzins turns the character of Beowulf into a sort of Hamlet, giving him an ethical choice and forcing him to reexamining the meaning of being a brave warrior and the wisdom of his beliefs. This dimension makes “Beowulf and Grendel” less of an action movie and unfortunately Berzins script does not always make it’s point with enough strength or clarity to be a good substitute, leaving the picture hanging in the balance between drama and action and looking like an overblown version of IMAX’s Vikings – somewhat historically interesting, nice to look at, some good information, but not really a movie. Also painful to watch are the plodding and unconvincing lines of actress Sarah Polley. Seeming to have taken lessons from the same coach as Keanu Reeves before his appearance in “Much Ado About Nothing,” she seems as out of place as Selma must have in Heorot.

One interesting highlight is the “live action” aspect. With some excellent fight scenes, recreation of Scandinavian dwellings, costumes designed by Canadian Debra Hanson ("New Waterford Girl") and make-up by Daniel Parker ("Last Samurai," "The English Patient"), Gunnarsson has recreated a convincing atmosphere of the early Dark Ages. Fighting against rain and 100 mile per hour winds in the wild landscape of Iceland, with it’s green mountains and vast beaches - although not as forboding as Mordor - is the type of isolated place from which legends such as the Grendel were born. Also opting not to rely on computer graphics or special effects, in the tradition of films, as Gunnarsson explains, that are “pre-Jurassic Park,” the actors tell the story with words and actions alone, further adding the the primitive feel. Also balanced out by occasional humorous moments, such as the appearance of frothing Irish priest St. Brendan the Navigator played by wild-eyed British tv actor Eddie Marsan (“Gangs of New York”) or Grendel relieving himself on the hall, “Beowulf and Grendel” has a sort of bawdy medieval quality about it which makes the picture at times entertaining.

Even as an avid fan of the tale of Beowulf and with a great desire to like this movie, I couldn’t bring myself to really enjoy it. It should have had better camera anlges on more men in a bigger beer hall and more going on, but constrained by a shoestring budget it kept to little more than a three man play and with the lack of action is more introvered than an Ingmar Bergman movie. While the examination of the concept of who is good and what is evil, and the message that the victors are the ones to define history is clever, even the breathtaking landscape of Iceland, which cowed Stellan Skarsgard while performing, could not cover the under-developed script, corny moments of self-exploration which have Gerald Butler looking like a dopy Garfield in front of a lasagne and most noticeable the overwhelming “there is something completely missing here” quality, perhaps brought on by the continual shots of empty landscape.

Thankfully, some relief is found in the supporting cast. Tony Curran ("This Life," "13th Warrior"), Martin Delaney (“Pie in the Sky,” “The Bill”), Rory McCann (“Alexander,” “Young Adam”) and Philip Whitchurch ("Monarch of the Glen," "Sharpe") manage to add a dimension of character, humor and “Das Boot” atmosphere to an otherwise somewhat faceless kingdom of Heorot. Icelandic actress Steinunn Ólína Porsteinsdóttir is also worth mention as Hrothgar's pushy wife Queen Wealhtheow.

Although "Beowulf and Grendel", is not as abismal as some of the Gunnersson's previous TV projects, such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Ray Bradbury Theatre” or “Dead Man’s Gun,” the director's return to his home has possibly awakened his sense of good taste but not to Oscar level. Fortunately, with three more adaptations of this ancient story scheduled for release in the near future, it is with anticipation that we can await a heroic director to bring a more deserving version to our shores.

Deserves better

Film Critic: Jennifer M Lillies