Often filmed, and usually by trying to put a spin to it, the ancient Beowulf poem has rarely been more realistic than in Beowulf and Grendel. It is also a less epic version than most movies on the subject try to be, so how does it hold up against expensive, fat, effects-filled blockbuster adaptions?
In an ancient kingdom, a monster is terrorizing the king and his court, so when the hero Beowulf arrives, he is given the task of killing the monster. However, it turns out that the monster is not just a regular troll. That’s the simple but classic premise for this “realistic” adaption of Beowulf, the poem. I say “realistic” because obviously there are exaggerations, artistic freedom and invented truths in this version. There are fewer fantastical and supernatural aspects than in other versions though, and in fact, by stretching real life possibilities somewhat, one might imagine that the way the poem is translated here, is how it could have happened in real life. Between the lines, this movie offers a scientific explanation for how a myth and a legend might start to exist, and it’s not something you’d find completely unbelievable. Still, there is enough artistic licence for the movie to fit within the general fantasy category.
Another way this movie is closer to reality is the amount and type of dialogue. The dialogue is more theatrical and in a way poetic, more so than in straight action adaptions, which may seem strange as nonfictional people never talk like poems, but this aspect reminds you of the source material and also adds character depth to major figures in the story, especially the king (Stellan Skarsgard) and Beowulf (Gerard Butler).
The fact that the movie is directed by Icelander Sturla Gunnarsson (who has a long and illustrous career in Canada), who must have drawn plenty from his closeness to actual Viking heritage, adds to the realistic look and feel of the movie, which by no means is glossy or overstyled. It very much looks like a real Viking action movie, except spiced up by Grendel.
Action is an essential part of any modern Beowulf movie and here it exists just about enough. Action scenes are not many but pretty intense and gory, and in particular one scene is gut-wrenching and painful to watch, due to the realistic nature. How sympathy for the monster has been built also adds impact to the scenes, and things are not quite as simple as they may seem at first glance. The movie manages well to blend several layers into its action scenes, such as characterization, emotions and motives, so neither the gore nor the killings are gratitous or exploitive.
On the downside, the movie does seem a little too confined to a few locations and a small group of characters. The feeling of “a kingdom under threat” is nowhere to be seen; it’s more a personal struggle for the king and his men. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in fact one doesn’t root for the king or the small kingdom, and even Beowulf isn’t a clear-cut hero, not in terms of who you have sympathy for. The monster becomes the anti-hero, and this is left with loose ends not tied up. The movie could have gone deeper into this part of the story, as there is a lot of interesting stuff to be explored on that level. It seems as if the movie wanted to go there, but could not afford it.
Beowulf and Grendel is a very competently directed movie, but is perhaps not for those who expect a straight action epic or easy popcorn entertainment. Fans of Stellan Skarsgard should also see the movie, as he has never been more unglamorous than here.
Rated 7 of 10.
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson.