Friday, February 05, 2010

“Oh, that's all we need, a god gone mad from lack of sleep.”

Great. Just great. An adaptation of an epic work that tries to tell “the real story” behind the myth. In the 2000s you couldn’t spit without having it land on some supposedly “realistic” take on a famous epic or legend that decided to cover everybody in brown, make it extra grimdark and take away all the elements that made the source material a timeless classic. Well, here’s 2005’s Beowulf & Grendel and I am just enthused to examine this movie.

So we open up with some trolls being hunted in broad daylight somewhere in the land of the Danes. Wait. Daylight and Scandinavian Trolls don’t mix, or rather, they mix like water and concrete. Anyway, Troll dad gets killed by some Vikings, then Lead Viking leaves Troll kid alive. Cut to the Future where Hrothgar the king of the Danes opens up Heorot and it gets attacked in the night by Grendel, who just happens to be the Troll kid all grown up and pissed off about his daddy’s death. Meanwhile, Beowulf washes ashore after a swimming competition and later finds out that Hrothgar’s got monster problems and sets out to kill things because that what Beowulf does. Beowulf and his Geats get there and find Hrothgar is a drunken, despondent ruler helpless to do anything about the monster. Then we find an Irish/Celtic priest who’s newly arrived and trying to convert the populace and a witch on the outskirts of town that knows a lot more about what’s going on than--

Really? I mean, REALLY? What all this stuff means is that there is a distinct shortage of Killing Things in this movie, and Beowulf doesn’t like that situation one bit. I agree with him.

Beowulf: Gerard Butler does a pretty good job of being a convincing Geatish hero. He’s a warrior and well regarded by his people and the Danes, and he’s a fairly upstanding guy too. Unfortunately, he’s a man of action stuck in a movie full of inaction, and doesn’t feel like a grandstanding epic hero in the fine Anglo-Saxon tradition. Which is a shame since he totally pulled off the epic hero in 300. Still, I suppose he’s the badass of the film.

Hrothgar: Stellan Skarsgård glowers his way through the movie as a grim and dour Hrothgar. Skarsgård’s not a bad actor by any means, and his performance here seems to be quite subtle. He’s a man haunted by his past actions, but the regret that Skarsgård shows seems to be different from the regret the story wants to tell us. Or maybe that was just me.

Grendel: Ingvar E. Sigurdsson’s Grendel is not a very good one. This Grendel is a big guy in mediocre makeup and extra bits of hair glued on. This Grendel is also given, of all things, a backstory full of some wash about how Hrothgar killed his father when he was a wee little noble savage analog, and so apparently when Grendel grew up he decided to take revenge by invading the hall of Heorot and killing a bunch of Danes whenever its open and leaving Hrothgar alone, because that’s- Wait. No. No. No. In Germanic society, personal honor and feuds were seen as something between the two disputants to settle. Taking the fight to others who aren’t a part of it was considered dishonorable, evil and cowardly in a society based around Heroic concepts (now, of course this stuff happened, but it was frowned on and stuff like murdering someone could start up a long running feud based on reprisal murders until either both families were left dead or somebody finally paid the weregild to settle it peacefully), which is the whole point of Grendel being a scary monster that needs to be put down. Turning him into some kind of feral Noble Savage archetype just shoehorns the monster into a position he’s ill suited for, since Grendel’s repeated attacks on the hall are brutal and cruel in their nature. As it stands, this Grendel does a bad job of being sympathetic AND fearsome. About the only interesting thing this movie does with Grendel is that he’s got his father’s desiccated skull in a place of honor in his cave.

Father Brendan: Eddie Marsan gives an… unflattering portrayal of early Christian missionaries to Scandinavia. On the one hand, he’s traveled there from Ireland in a little wooden boat all by himself unarmed, which is pretty ballsy. On the other hand, he’s shown as a filthy zealot prone to epileptic-style fits where he drools and falls down after getting worked up in conversations. And yet he’s still successful in gaining converts among the Danes, including one or two of Beowulf’s Geats. Because I guess even as uncharismatic as the guy is, he can still get converts because the Past is full of Superstition and Fear or something condescending like that. Yeah, he’s not in the manuscript.

Selma: Sarah Polley plays the most irritating character in the movie. Also completely fabricated for the film, she’s a witch on the outskirts of town that freaks people out because she claims to be able to know when people will die, which isn’t that irritating of a premise. Then she becomes an important character because she seems to be under Grendel’s protection and knows more about the situation than Hrothgar’s told Beowulf, which is annoying, yes, but not nearly as annoying as her incredibly smug and self-righteous attitude about, well, everything. Oh yes, and she’s never wrong about anything ever because she’s just so special. She’s also Beowulf’s sorta love interest because, well, she’s the only attractive available woman in the village. And a redhead.

Sturla Gunnarsson uses the extraordinarily bleak and beautiful landscape of Iceland to speak volumes about the harshness and danger of life in early Medieval Scandinavia. Secondly, the costuming and architecture is suitably period, and the armor looks very good and apropos. Other than that, things fall pretty flat. The makeup on Grendel is pretty average and his mother’s costume is rather better, but she’s barely in the movie anyway. The pacing is glacial and the brutal action (*cough* and quick pacing) that’s a hallmark of the Beowulf story is mostly absent. Magic is nonexistent despite having a witch, but we’ve got some monsters, so there’s a disparity in mythological elements, and the famous Beowulf/Grendel showdown is unrewarding, because while Grendel loses an arm, as per story requirements, its not from Beowulf tearing it out with his bare hands due to his sheer awesomeness.

Andrew Rai Berzins did some…interesting things adapting the ancient poem to the screen. First, all of that beautiful alliterative rhythm of the language and the subtle wordplay that describes things indirectly known as kennings is totally gone. Nobody's calling the ocean a whale-road in this Beowulf movie, thank you very much. Nope. Dialog here is dull, modernized and unimaginative. Grendel is described several times as “a fucking troll” by Hrothgar. I mean, really? That’s the best they can muster? I mean, I’ve got nothing against profanity by any means, but when you put something as uninspired as that into the mouths of warriors who’ve grown up in a heroic, boasting and non-literate culture, words should have greater meaning than that. Though there is one bit that is rather amusing: Grendel doesn’t attack the first night the Geats keep their vigil in the Hall. Grendel comes to the door and proceeds to piss on it, which, for infantile toilet humor, is pretty decent.

Then there’s the issue of all the story additions. The new characters aren’t good or welcome, but they’re covered above. Now, the movie tries to garner sympathy for Grendel, what with making his attack on the Danes a matter of revenging the death of his father in the prologue. So what’s the lesson of the movie?

Well, if you’re a Danish warrior who kills a troll and decide to show mercy by not killing his son, don’t do it. Finish the job. More lives will be saved by killing the little troll kid than by letting him grow up into an incoherent brute. Moreover, why is it so easy to kill Grendel’s pa in the beginning, but so damn hard for the Danes to do the same to Grendel?

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s score is fine and appropriate to Scandinavian shenanigans.

Beowulf & Grendel is a well shot movie that fails because of the story and script, and the kicker is that Beowulf is not a complicated thing to get at least somewhat right. Grendel breaks shit, Beowulf shows up to break him and tears off Grendel’s arm with his bare hands because he’s just that awesome. Its not a difficult concept, but this movie pads the story with so much ancillary bullshit and boring bits that the basic appeal of the epic is completely lost.

Not nearly as exciting as the trailer

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