Saturday, January 03, 2009

Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

For the first 10 or 15 minutes, I thought this movie was a dead loss. I had ordered it from almost as a matter of self-defense. Since the movie was an Icelandic-Canadian co-production and I am a Canadian medievalist with lots of re-creationist friends I felt sure that eventually one of them would pin me down and expect me to have an opinion about this movie and how it compared to the big-budget Hollywood production of a couple years back. A short way into the movie, I was cursing myself for feeling that need, which had trapped me into watching a complete dud. The introduction was completely incomprehensible, in part because the mixture of odd accents among the actors. I did not notice any Icelandic accents, but there were plenty of what seemed to be thick Irish and Scottish ones. Even though I know the story of Beowulf quite well I was getting completely lost.

But as we went on I got more used to it and eventually it won me over. This movie had some of the most believable early medieval armor and costuming, and the landscape may not look very much like Denmark but it evoked a premodern era very strongly. The acting is good and the story is a success on its own terms. This movie actually is less faithful to the poem than the big-budget one, but in some ways that was an advantage. It is not like the big-budget version really caught medieval personalities and ways of thinking; this one may not have either, but to my modern sensibility at least there was a sense of reality about the entire picture. One instance is that Grendel is not a CGI monster of uncertain origins, but a big troll-like human being, who comes from a tribe of troll-like human beings. He's strong and ugly and dangerous but not superhuman. The Beowulf poet might not approve of this treatment, but he is in good company. The people who made the movie don't approve of the poet's presentation either, and they felt free to introduce subplots and different perspectives. I am not sure how strongly to recommend this movie, but if you are interested in reasonable film treatments of the early Middle Ages, you will probably find something worthwhile in this.

Image: A drunk, demoralized King Hrothgar and his stalwart queen.

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