Okay, so when
you read Beowulf in high school, the sexiest it actually
got was the use of the word "swive." If all goes well for
this new take on an old legend, that word should come back
in fashion. A whole Geatish revival, if you will, all because
Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman found a way to both make Beowulf
thrilling and sexy while still keeping true to its roots
as an epic poem.
It also takes
Robert Zemeckis, a groundbreaking director having faith
in a clever script and then bringing it spectacularly to
life. The combination of talents provides a satisfying adventure
that might just be educational, too.
a John Bolton painting come to life, the film hits all the
familiar beats. In Denmark, the mighty but aged warrior
King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) dedicates his sumptuous
mead hall Heorot to wine, singing and swiving. Unfortunately
for his kingdom, the carousing echoes across the valley
to a cave of demons inhabited by Grendel (Crispin Glover).
In a strange
way, Grendel may be one of Glover's most sympathetic and
understandable creations. Consumed by pain and wearing his
skin inside out, the misshapen beast finds his way to Heorot
and lays waste to the warriors fighting in a drunken haze.
Only Hrothgar seems to strike fear - or at least confusion
- in the monster's heart, but not enough to stave off bloodshed.
From a far off
land comes Beowulf (Ray Winstone), muscle and pride combined
to vanquish Grendel. In this version, however, that pride
has a very dark side, which Zemeckis illustrates with not
too much subtlety. What Avary and Gaiman have added to the
tale is a tragic flaw (in the hero, not the story).
No longer is
Beowulf just a tale of adventure to tell by the fireside.
Now it has some depth, and a clever way of connecting the
first two quests to the last, in which the action flashes
forward some years for the aged hero's last battle with
a fearsome dragon.
The link comes
with Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Demon Mother, a character
and performance that plays to some of the wilder aspects
of her public perception. It's not a winking performance;
instead, Jolie turns up the sensuality, while animators
take care of the rest. Snake scales melt and slide off of
her, with a spiky tail that easily doubles as a long impossibly
golden braid. This demon exudes sexuality as easily as Jolie
herself adopts children; it's no wonder that Beowulf's sword
becomes literal putty in her hands.
symbolism drips from this film, and none too subtly. When
Beowulf prepares to battle Grendel, he strips down, willing
to wrestle the beast as equals. So you'll be forgiven if
you think that's not Grendel's arm that Beowulf rips off.
As much as some
of this brings a smile, it also is filled with sure-handed
action sequences balanced with surprisingly nuanced performances.
Even through digital trickery, Winstone can reveal the self-doubt
in Beowulf while his voice still bellows his epithets. Hopkins
still casts too-piercing knowing gazes around, aided by
improvements since The Polar Express. Though the
technology still isn't quite perfect, the eyes on these
characters are far more lifelike.
They even capture
the arrogance of John Malkovich's cold glare, as Hrothgar's
eely lieutenant Unferth. The only oddity to that character
is his embrace of this new Roman god, the Christ Jesus.
It's not the historical inaccuracy - others know better
than I do, but it's not mentioned in the poem - it's that
it throws in a possible dig at Christianity that didn't
need to be there.
also to the film's credit. That dig is not only debatable,
it will open debate. This isn't just a movie to let wash
over you, though you can certainly do that. The very literate
script also challenges you to think and mull, if such is
you must also catch it in 3D if you can. RealD, the house
used for the effect, also did Monster House last
year, and they've got the process down perfectly. Zemeckis
takes advantage of the possibilities inherent in the form,
making Beowulf a thrill ride with a soul.