BEOWULF & GRENDEL is the first of two big screen adaptations, released two years apart, of an anonymously written Old English poem chronicling the heroic efforts of a Geat warrior to destroy a monster that terrorizes a Danish kingdom. Neither version is faithful to the poem although the ways in which they stray vary greatly. This largely Icelandic production starring 300′s Gerald Butler is the lesser of the two and interprets the story as if it were history, rather dry history at that.
In the original poem titled “Beowulf,” the title character leads a small band of Geats (aka Goths) overseas to the land now known as Denmark to assist King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård) in killing the monster Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson), a beast of a man with the strength and size to tear his victims apart and feast on their flesh. A script by Andrew Rai Berzins takes ample liberties, first by reducing the monster to a barbarian who clobbers Danes over the head as an act of revenge against Hrothgar, who years earlier had slain his father. In truth, no one really knows why Grendel kills. In another time, the story probably would have been entertaining enough without contrived motives.
Although well cast, Beowulf is transformed into an empathetic hero of virtue who gradually comes to pity Grendel. In addition to lumbering and vanilla direction from Sturla Gunnarsson and a B-grade script with awful dialogue and supporting acting, this restructuring of Beowulf is the fatal flaw of this movie. Aside from emerging from a ship wreck unscathed and recalling past battles, Beowulf is nothing but a flickering shadow of the original character. His great physical strength is never emphasized and his fights with Grendel and Grendel’s revenge-seeking mother are short and disappointing.
What very little action there is in this film is simple at best. Swordplay choreography is rudimentary and many opportunities for much-needed action and heavy violence are diluted or side-stepped entirely by Gunnarsson, either for budgetary constraints, lack of interest or both. Beowulf never battles a dragon at the end and there are long gaps between confrontations with Grendel and his mother that are filled with a lot of dull contemporary dialogue. The worst exchanges are between Beowulf and a young witch (Sarah Polley) who is added to the story. She becomes an interpreter and lover caught between the creature and Beowulf. It’s sometimes laughable, sometimes repulsive and never an asset.
What the film does have going for it is the Icelandic backdrop that is ably photographed by Jan Kiesser. If only I could say the same thing about the makeup effects. As Grendel, Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson wears a form-fitting muscle suit. It doesn’t look too bad until you notice the obvious neckline, rubbery folds in close ups and the skin tone which does not match the face.
BEOWULF & GRENDEL could have been great under the right circumstances. Where the Robert Zemeckis 3-D animated BEOWULF goes way over-the-top with its depiction of the action, Gunnarsson’s version tries a more mature and stately approach. However, it’s not done with enough style or skill. Moreover, something tells me the original author of the poem was less concerned about stately storytelling and more interested in relaying an exciting heroic saga, something this film is not.
Beowulf & Grendel (2005) • Denmark • poem • revenge • severed limb • troll