Top positive review
on 13 February 2013
With the cinematic success of `The Lord of the Rings' I suppose it would not be long before `Beowulf' also received the Hollywood motion-picture treatment, especially since Tolkien had mined the Anglo-Saxon poem `Beowulf' as one of his major sources. I therefore approached the screening with some trepidation.
I remember the exact moment in the cinema when my scepticism about the film I was about to watch was dispelled. It occurred six minutes into the film, when the camera pulls back from Hrothgar's hall through the snow-covered fields that surround it. The pull-back then continues further out again across the river; then even further out through a forest; the pull-back continues onwards and outwards, higher and higher until we reach Grendel's cave.
That extended well-framed, perfectly paced, pull-back convinced me that considerable thought had been given to interpreting the `Beowulf' poem, and from then on I was completely engrossed by the world offered to me on screen, ably assisted by Alan Silvestri's fine score. It soon became clear that this was not just another Hollywood hatchet-job. It IS still a hatchet-job of sorts, but one with meaning and good intentions.
Problems arise from the very start when we are told that the setting is `Denmark AD507', which is `a little' too early for my liking. Changes and additions have been made to the dialogue, and some fundamental changes have been made to the storyline. The screenwriters - Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary - argue that this is for the better in that it makes the narrative more coherent. And I am tempted to agree with them.
They have fleshed out the roles of Wealthow and Unferth, but the most radical change is to imply that Hrothgar slept with Grendel's mother, thus spawning the beast whose eardrums are so sensitive. In the poem, of course, Beowulf entered her lair via a lake, but here her home is the same as Grendel's, albeit a lake is found within the cave.
The second radical change is Hrothgar committing suicide after naming Beowulf as his heir, which allows the story to remain within the one landscape, so that the dragon (who is explicitly the son of Beowulf and Grendel's mother, a third major modification) haunts the same land as Grendel rather than ravaging the country of Beowulf's homeland, as the original poem has it. As already mentioned, these changes make for a more cohesive narrative, turning the poem's three acts into one linked tale that is beautifully, brilliantly, and imaginatively produced (though purists will no doubt be horrified).
But at heart this cinematic interpretation of `Beowulf' remains true to its original telling. Some of the violence is excessively gruesome, but is no doubt included to appeal to a certain kind of teenage mentality. A linked but more healthy kind of teenage mentality is appealed to by the garb (or rather, lack of garb) and portrayal of Grendel's mother by Angelina Jolie. But it's a shame that the final dragon flight and fight becomes wholly contrived and mere entertainment.
In terms of production design, full marks for imaginative responses, such as the roof of Grendel's cave being formed of the inside of a giant's ribcage. But to portray Jutland as a land of mountains will disappoint a lot of tourists looking for an original `Beowulf' experience. And to have Hrothgar's hall and Beowulf's later city constructed in stone with towers and other architectural ornamentation is to place sixth-century Danish civilisation five hundred years ahead of its time.
The motion-capture method of filming for which director Robert Zemeckis has become renowned works. Andrew Osmond, writing in `Sight & Sound' wrote how "'Beowulf' often feels like live-action with special effects, rather than computer animation." At least it makes a portly Ray Winstone look more like a youthful Sean Bean. It's a shame that the actors all maintain their own distinctive accents, but we are compensated by the amusement experienced watching the lengths the film goes to ensure Beowulf's private parts remain hidden.
This is a review of the two-disc director's cut edition. The second disc has a twenty-five minute `Making of', in which Zemeckis openly states that his film focuses on the more physical aspects of the tale - the food, the drink, the fighting, and the sex. We also learn how the motion-capture technique - not dependent on light, weather, etc - means that he can shoot in forty minutes what would have normally taken a whole day.
Other extras include a series of short films "mapping the journey" from poem to film, and the screenwriters explain why they made the changes they did for the sake of dramatic unity. There is much too on the film's artwork and the design of the creatures. Finally, there are seven additional scenes (in basic form), lasting twelve minutes.