What have they done to Beowulf, everyone’s least favourite Old English epic about a hero’s battles with a monster, the monster’s mother and an annoying dragon that turns up 50 years later?
I am Beowulf! Jolie plays heeled temptress to Winstone’s imperfect hero
Director Robert Zemeckis not only deploys 21st century movie technology at its finest to turn the heroic poem into a vibrant, nerve-tingling piece of pop culture, but his film actually makes sense of Beowulf. In Zemeckis’ hands, it’s an intriguing look at the hero as a flawed human being.
Remember Annie Hall, when Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton, “Just don’t take any class where you have to read Beowulf”. As multitudes stand in long lines to see this movie, many may indeed be reading Beowulf, if only to relish what Zemeckis and company have accomplished.
There are two sets of heroes here. One is the writing team of author/graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary (the nearly forgotten other writer of Pulp Fiction, 1994). They have genuinely solved the structural problem of the poem, written around AD 700. The link between the early battles of a young hero and his fatal confrontation with the dragon as an ageing king is his temptation by the monster’s mother who dangles wealth, power and sexual favours in front of his bedazzled eyes. Makes sense—Beowulf’s sins come back to haunt him.
The other heroes are Zemeckis’ “performance capture” and 3D animation teams, which digitally enhance the bare-bones live action into a beguiling other world brimming with vitality. This new technique, which Zemeckis broke ground with in the visually impressive though dramatically weak The Polar Express (2004), achieves maturity in the movie, Beowulf.
Beowulf tells of a young warrior, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who emerges from a raging storm in a Viking ship to rescue a Danish kingdom ruled by old King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his beauteous queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). The monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), angered by the noise of singing and drinking in Hrothgar’s great hall, has butchered many warriors.
Grendel is a thing of horrific beauty. He looks like a mummy with a contagious disease. He’s a slobbering, pus-filled, hideously deformed giant with a lopsided face and rotting teeth that can barely chew a man’s head.
Knowing no weapon will defeat this monster, Beowulf sheds his clothes and waits for the next attack. In an epic battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm. The now-whimpering bully limps home to his mother’s lair to die.
Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) takes revenge by attacking the hall following a night of celebration. She strings up the corpses of all of Beowulf’s men save for his trusted lieutenant, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson).
Presented a sword by Unferth (John Malkovich), who initially doubted Beowulf’s resolve, Beowulf enters the mother’s grotto with its eerie lake. But rather than battle Beowulf, the mother sets out to seduce him, as she did Hrothgar years before.
Zemeckis is not afraid to indulge in moments of camp. Jolie’s golden and nude temptress with a devil’s tail strides towards her adversary in high heels! Grendel’s whimpering about the Big Bad Man who tore off his arm reveals a pathetic mama’s boy. The hero’s constant assertion “I am Beowulf!” and Wiglaf’s equally frequent refrain “You are Beowulf!” cry out for a Saturday Night Live skit.
But here lies Zemeckis’ keen pop sensibility. The gruesome violence and male and female near nudity, mixed together with ribald humour, make Beowulf a waggish bit of postmodern fun.
Beowulf will roll out in the largest 3D release of any film to date, including Imax 3D. While 2D prints will certainly play well, Zemeckis has brilliantly designed the movie for 3D, creating a strong depth of field and action in the fore, middle and backgrounds in his more complex shots.
Beowulf released on Friday.
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