Review – Beowulf

Beowulf [2007]

Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary

Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf is not really what I envisioned when I read the original epic poem so many years ago. The entire film feels like a balancing act between the story as told in the poem, and a more down-to-earth, grounded action and fantasy adventure. But it never quite feels at home. It’s certainly visually stunning. One cannot argue with that fact. The visuals lend a stylistic significance that perhaps was a stroke of genius in telling this tale. Yet though it’s good to look at, its story, characters and overall vision just don’t satisfy.

The story follows the basic plot of the epic poem. The Norse kingdom of Heorot is attacked by a vicious monster known as Grendel, murdering everyone in the great mead hall. King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) send a message across the lands and the seas for a hero to come and kill the beast. And so one does: Beowulf, voiced… and in a way, played, by Ray Winstone. Though his body is certainly not that of Winstone’s. As I understand it, a separate model was used for his perfectly muscly body. But no matter. Beowulf arrives and promises to kill the monster. As we know, he of course does. But it was at this point that I began to frown, and lose interest. Perhaps I simply loved the epic poem too much.

Let me explain. In the poem, Beowulf was a great, strong man, who was able to tear the arm off Grendel. Yet in the film, he finds a way to break it off without the use of his strength alone. It is obvious why this happens: the bards embellish the story, and we are left with the resulting epic poem. This is further indicated by Beowulf’s explanation of swimming across the sea and killing nine sea monsters (“It was three last time” says Beowulf’s companion). Embellishment often happened with the exploits of norse heroes.

So then why, if this film is supposed to be grounded in some kind of stylistic realism, can Beowulf move like a super human, and seem to do almost super human things to take down Grendel, and then subsequently, the Dragon? It always felt like the balance shifted from one side to the other. At times it was the embellished tale told by the bard, at others it was the “true” story upon which the tale was based.

Angelina Jolie shows up as Grendel’s mother, but she more or less felt like a gimmick to me. “Let’s show a digital, humanoid Angelina Jolie practically naked – that’ll win an audience.” I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, but I wondered afterward what the real point was. Some major details and twists were added to the story regarding Grendel, his mother, Beowulf and the Dragon. I’m not sure if I approve, but I certainly give the filmmakers credit for trying. It was interesting, but I didn’t find it in any way to really enhance the story itself. One point I did approve of was the more interesting role given to Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), Hrothgar’s queen.

Still, for all the gripes I had with this film, I was taken in by its visuals, which are, to say the least, astounding. I recommend the visuals of this film, and if you’re the type of person that can love a film simply for the marvel and feast it gives the eyes, then I’m sure you’ll find little to complain about. Normally, I’d consider myself a part of that category. But in this case, I just wanted more, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t really delivered.

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