Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reviews From an MMB (Beowulf and Grendel)

How long has it been since I reviewed a movie, exactly? ....Let's just say too long and move on...

Copied from
The blood-soaked tale of a Norse warrior's battle against the great and murderous troll, Grendel. Heads will roll. Out of allegiance to the King Hrothgar, the much respected Lord of the Danes, Beowulf leads a troop of warriors across the sea to rid a village of the marauding monster. The monster, Grendel, is not a creature of mythic powers, but one of flesh and blood - immense flesh and raging blood, driven by a vengeance from being wronged, while Beowulf, a victorious soldier in his own right, has become increasingly troubled by the hero-myth rising up around his exploits. Beowulf's willingness to kill on behalf of Hrothgar wavers when it becomes clear that the King is more responsible for the troll's rampages than was first apparent. As a soldier, Beowulf is unaccustomed to hesitating. His relationship with the mesmerizing witch, Selma, creates deeper confusion. Swinging his sword at a great, stinking beast is no longer such a simple act. The story is set in barbarous Northern Europe where the reign of the many-gods is giving way to one - the southern invader, Christ. Beowulf is a man caught between sides in this great shift, his simple code transforming and falling apart before his eyes. Vengeance, loyalty and mercy powerfully entwine. A story of blood and beer and sweat, which strips away the mask of the hero-myth, leaving a raw and tangled tale.

Ah, so much easier than my having to sum it up for you...anyway...

I studied Beowulf, the poem, in high school, and if I may state the obvious, this isn't how I remember it. As with all things, this had some good points, and it had some bad points. It offered an alternative view on Grendel and his motivations as well as Beowulf and his morals, and some food for thought on how we as humans view good and bad, right and wrong, justice and vengeance. It also moved a bit slowly at times and had a few details that felt awkward, i.e. a lot of swearing and modern speech mixed in with old-world language. Yeah, little jarring at times. I had to translate half the dialogue for my mother and brother, and could only speculate with them as to why the other half was so, well, modern.

The easiest way I can think of to describe this one was something of a conglomeration of The Phantom of the Opera and 300. No, really. There are elements of both at play here. Grendel is dubbed evil by virtue of being different, and Beowulf is bound to destroy him in defense of kith and kin. To be honest, I was expecting more mindless action and less moral dilemma. It was a pleasant surprise, apart from a few slow spots.

Now, onto the actors. It would be easy to say that Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Grendel had it easy. I mean, his character is quite literally a troll. There was a lot of grunting and yelling on his part, but the remarkable thing about it was that you could still tell exactly what was going on in Grendel's mind. He was intelligent, sympathetic, and had a surprising code of honor. I was pretty impressed with him. Stellan Skarsgård as King Hrothgar...not sure about this one. After the first OMG! It's Bootstrap Bill! moment, I was unfazed. He was responsible for eighty percent of the out-of-place swearing that made no sense in the setting, and even apart from that he didn't do much for me. An old man under attack from a seemingly invincible foe he doesn't understand and can't rid himself of should at least inspire pity, but it was only when everything was over and done with that I felt anything for him. In fact, I can give you the exact scene: after Grendel is killed (sorry if I spoiled it, but that's how the story goes), Hrothgar and Beowulf are drinking and laughing with themselves, and Hrothgar finally stops laughing and just breaks down, relieved that his ordeal is over, exhausted by said ordeal, and remorseful over his role in it all. I'm not made of stone, and that one got me.

I'm not very familiar with Sarah Polley (as I barely paid attention to the last twenty minutes I saw of Splice and didn't give her a thought), but Selma the witch grew on me, and I still can't pin down why. It might be in her attitude...she's sarcastic and sassy, she can't seem to give a straight answer, and she generally leaves Beowulf to figure things out on his own, occasionally giving next-to-useless hints and outright mocking him. She's not exactly devil-may-care, but she's pretty close. And then there's Gerard Butler...his Beowulf starts out confident in himself and his mission, but as things progress he's stuck with no clue as to what's the truth and who the bad guy really is, and he comes to question everything and everyone. There's an evident and believable character arc for him (and less shouting than in 300) and while he's still sworn to kill Grendel, he no longer sees it as a matter of honor but something merely necessary that has to be done.

Another element in the story is religion. As word gets out of Hrothgar's plight, in ventures an Irish priest bringing the gospel to the pagan Danes and offering salvation for all. As Beowulf points out, however, there is no way of knowing how many of the converts were sincere in their newfound faith, or if they do it merely in fear for their lives. That seems to be a theme here: shaken faith. The Danes turn from their gods who don't protect them. Hrothgar turns from the truth of Grendel and his own part in the drama. Beowulf turns from his own sense of duty, fulfilling his vow because he must and taking no pride in his actions.

Overall, certainly not a waste of my time and money (though that scene with the fisherman in the beginning was definitely expendable), and I got a laugh when my brother was able to point out the modern tread on supposedly medieval footgear. I'm sure someone else can pick it apart in greater detail, but I basically enjoyed it, which is good enough for me.

Your modest movie buff,

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