Shrek goes to Geatland…
When I was but a callow freshman my mother, an archetypal Danish monster*, meaning well, made me sign up for a Mediaeval English Literature class. At the time this aggrieved me, but despite myself I enjoyed it immensely, and especially the really old bits – derived from Icelandic and Old High German, prominent among them Snorri Sturluson’s sagas in which people ritually burn each other and the anonymous Danish legend Beowulf. It’s a great story, even in its original old English (which considerably pre-Chaucer, so tough if you have trouble navigating the vowel shift), and – being the archetypal “confronting the Monster” story – ideal fodder, you would think, for a cinematic treatment.
And in recent times, it has had more than its fair share. Derek Jacobi and Ralph Fiennes have narrated a 30 minute animated version; Gerard Butler and a bunch of Canadians endured gales and abysmal weather in Iceland to make an earnest and frugal but, in truth, not especially imaginative version in 2005. And there’s this one.
Well, you certainly couldn’t mark this one down for not being imaginative. First the positives: the cast, as announced, is astounding, numbering amongst them Anthony Hopkins (Hrothgar), Ray Winstone (Beowulf), John Malkovich (some other guy) and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother. Yes: you read that right: Brad Pitt’s wife (as she then was) plays one of the most famous monsters in the history of literature. Short of a Charlize Theron turn as an Eileen Wurnos type character, that has to be one of the most extraordinary pieces of miscasting since they put Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing.
Unless, of course, the film-makers have been so imaginative that they’ve completely re-imagined the part of Grendel’s mother. I hope it won’t be considered poor sport of me to let on that they have.
And the script is witty and the screenplay and staging – while frequently indulging in 3D effects for the hell of it, as 3D movies tend to do – is impressive. Grendel (junior) is well rendered and achieves surprising empathy for an entirely digital performance. I think he also speaks in Old High German, and is portrayed not as merriment-resenting curmudgeon (as in the original) but as having a very nasty ear infection!
Now the negatives. Beowulf is designed as an onscreen rendering of a graphic novel (in old fashioned lingo, a comic), so do not come to this expecting a faithful or reverent iteration of the film. The plot has been significantly revised, although for the most part thoughtfully and cleverly, albeit conducted at breakneck speed, and with lashings of gore. Then again, it would be difficult to depict as much dismembering the story requires (even in its original state) without a fair bit of splatter.
But the biggest thing to note is that (being produced by the Polar Express team) Beowulf is entirely digital – not just acted in front of blue screens, but fully animated, like Shrek; the actors have been completely re-rendered. In some cases this works well (Hrothgar): I dare say portly cockney geezer Ray Winstone was absolutely chuffed to be presented as a 6 foot 5 inches of rippling Geatish hunk; but the remainder of the characters do have an unfortunate Shrek-ish sort of bearing and their movements aren’t especially convincing (particularly the horses, which all look rather stumpy and ponyish). Ultimately I found this immensely distracting to the point where it spoiled what otherwise would have been a tremendous film.
There’s a place for the technical wizardry, as Peter Jackson has ably demonstrated; but when it becomes the principal point of the film something is bound to have been lost.
*Joking about my mum being a Danish monster. She’s a Kiwi, and she’s the best.