Since John Gardner's book Grendel fifty years ago, retellings of the story of Beowulf have enjoyed a certain postmodern freedom from the rigidity of the original Anglo-Saxon verse. If Grendel be more man than monster, can the burly hero still boast about his destruction? Would he still want to? Removing the mystique from Grendel (and his people) calls into question the monster's motives, desires, and even rights. If you guard your fairy tales with religious zeal, if you prefer your monsters black-hearted, your heroes righteous as the dawn, then by gods skip Sturla Gunnarsson's recent entry into this dialogue. If you are instead a student of realism, and the possibility of all actions being unjustifiable, of all decisions being the wrong decision, tickles your inner materialist, then you are sure to be rewarded. There is so much talk of Beowulf & Grendel's realistic properties, that one aspect must first be overcome. There is no point where this universe of Danes, Geats, and monsters is intended to be our own. Grendel's people, whose depiction in the film belies the creators' mid-production waffling between a race of yeti or relict Neanderthal, are not human, but humanoid. That is all that it is necessary that they be. Likewise the Danes call them trolls, but there is no intention to conjure up images from Asbjørnsen and Moe. It appears they settled on a strange dimorphism, where the females of the tribe are trunk-legged water-dwellers, and the men three meter-tall land ramblers. This is all, as they say, academic; however, I wonder whether it, along with bizarre calligraphic chapter cards at uneven internals, is evidence of an attempt to shoehorn fairy tale properties for a wider audience. What is realistic is instead the writing, and the limitations and expectations of these brutal, Dark Age characters. These people are frank, superstitious, crude, and violent, but the main achievement is in making them also uncaricatured. They are intelligent but not wise, brave, but not invulnerable. "I p--s the stuff, you know" says Hrothgar (Skarsgård) under-voice to Beowulf (Butler) as the two comment on an increasingly atypical blood-free morning. I'm especially fond of an early scene where Beowulf washes up ashore in Geatland and casually brushes off the minor adventure to a peasant fisherman. "Oh, a hero! Well, don't my s--t stink!" says the peasant. It typifies the period so perfectly - this is 500 CE, long before castles, courts, and chivalry, before class or nationalism. Survival was all, in harsh lands where kings commanded fewer men than a high school basketball coach. For these tribesmen the gods couldn't do what kinship sometimes could, and they would kill what they didn't understand. And this is what prompts our story. Hrothgar killed a troll, for all intents and purposes, and it's child, Grendel, on reaching adulthood sets upon the Danes so thoroughly, the hero sails from Geatland to fulfill a blood oath after hearing the gruesome tale. Soon he begins to suspect he has become involved not in a war over territory or food, but a personal grudge against just one man who is prepared to let his people suffer for his mistakes. "What is a troll?" he asks a tight-lipped Hrothgar. This is not to suggest Beowulf is a modern man. He is open-minded, intelligent, brave, and a natural leader, but there are things hidden even from him. The outcast witch, Selma (Polley) has that honor. A postmodern woman who has learned a few tricks to ensure Hrothgar's men leave her - mostly - alone, she has earned a reputation as a mystic who can foretell the deaths of others. Her victimization has given her the only real wisdom in the film, that there is an honor to Grendel worth more than blood oaths, that binds him to Hrothgar through vengeance and to her out of shame. Beowulf, like Grendel, has to first wrong Selma to gain this understanding. 'What is a troll?' One could well ask, 'what is a hero?' The competing elements of the old gods and Christianity are treated in the film comically, in the form of two priests, one of Odin who is a servant of the king, and one of Christ, whose presence is tolerated because of the Grendel crisis. When Grendel's mother comes seeking vengeance, both are washed away with the rest of hope. The locations are inspired. Filmed in his native Iceland, Gunnarsson marches his cast over shoals and cliffs, places not exactly up to code. I doubt there was any coconut water on set. The wide shots of the landscape are much more than background here, every bit as rugged as when it was first colonized hundreds of years after the Beowulf legend came to be. The horses and much of the cast are Icelandic, which works just fine for dark-age Daneland. The accents, however, are overall confusing. Most of the Geats use a Scottich brogue, while Selma, the outsider, speaks fluent Canadian. Geats and Danes had a common language, making any differentiation artifactual, and, I think, unwelcome. In the acting department there are no miscasts. It is actually a little refreshing how great everyone is (accents aside). For all that, the film has a cheap sort of look, especially in costume and set design. Heorot would probably fall down if anyone shut the door too hard. Beowulf & Grendel is a quirky, unfaithful historical drama. There is no attempt to include a dragon in the third act, thank gods. Of all the ways this story has been regurgitated, this is perhaps the most experimental, in a way even more distant a retelling than The 13th Warrior (1999), which also replaced myth with men, but without humanizing them. In that film, heroes and villains are still archetypal, whereas in Gunnarsson's, Beowulf struggles with the fact he and Grendel actually have very little to fight about. Arguably, even in the final shots the man just doesn't get it. Neither, it seems, did audiences. 7.5 / 10
Beowulf & Grendel
Action / Adventure / Drama / Fantasy
Beowulf & Grendel
Action / Adventure / Drama / Fantasy
In Denmark, during the 6th century, Danish king Hrothgar and his warriors kill a troll whose son, Grendel, vows revenge.
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April 16, 2019