movie film review | chris tookey


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  Beowulf Review
Tookey's Rating
6 /10
Average Rating
6.40 /10
Beowulf: Ray Winstone , King Hrothgar: Anthony Hopkins
Full Cast >

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Nail Gaiman and Roger Avary

Released: 2007
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 110

Beowulf is a paradox, a unique conjunction of courageously clever and depressingly dumb. It’s a big, brutal, boys’ film, aimed – like the equally grandiose Spartan epic 300 before it - at big, brutal boys. But it’s also a lot of fun, especially the way I saw it, through 3D spectacles and on an enormous Imax screen. At one point, I thought Angelina Jolie’s physical attributes were going to poke my eyes out. What a way to go…

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Ahem. Let’s begin with the positives.

Beowulf may be the most famous of all Anglo-Saxon poems, but as drama it is, to put it no higher, challenging. It begins with a monster called Grendel attacking a hall full of drunken Danes (why? To show solidarity with Dawn Primarolo’s anti-drinking campaign?) but sparing the life of their King Hrothgar, also for no obvious reason. Then a foreign warrior called Beowulf appears. He bumps off Grendel. When Grendel’s mother attacks the hall as a reprisal, Beowulf goes to her cave, slaughters her and brings back Grendel’s head (but not his mother’s – why not?) As a reward, Beowulf is crowned King after Hrothgar’s death. Then, fifty years later, a dragon turns up; whereupon Beowulf and the monster kill each other. The story is certainly eventful, but there are gaping holes in the narrative. Virtually all the monsters’ acts are unmotivated. And Beowulf himself is a tediously one-dimensional hero.

The adapters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have had the simple but revolutionary idea of asking: who was Grendel’s father? Their answer is Hrothgar, who was seduced by Grendel’s mother - and she’s no ordinary monster but a demon who can turn herself into the most seductive of women, even if she is as mad as a bag of snakes (that’s Ms Jolie, as if you couldn’t guess). And when Beowulf goes to kill her, she seduces him just as she captivated Hrothgar. The dragon which brings about Beowulf’s downfall is Beowulf’s own son.

This audacious take on myth makes Beowulf a less perfect, but far more interesting, hero. He’s boastful, he lies and he’s always ready to put the best spin on his actions. Characterwise, he’s a mixture of Simon Cowell, Jeffrey Archer and Tony Blair, with the physique of Christiano Ronaldo and the athleticism of Kate Garraway (it’s all right – I’m joking).

Beowulf becomes a charismatic, tragic hero, undone by his own hubristic wish to be a mythic hero, and corrupted by those reliable old regal attributes, power-madness and ungovernable lust.

Just as effectively, Grendel is portrayed not as a malign force of nature, but as a monstrous, slobbering, violent child – a malformed brute who trashes the King’s mead hall because he can’t stand the noise of the warriors’ drunken chanting, and because he knows his father will always disown him for being a grotesque, misshapen brute. As with previous classic monsters, such as Frankenstein’s creation, this outcast is in some ways the most human, and vulnerable, character in the movie. In his need to lash out at toffs and inability to express himself comprehensibly, he’s like a more sympathetic John Prescott.

Not every English Literature Professor is going to agree with me, but this film strikes me as an intelligent take on the legend. It’s as good as telling us that the original tale we know is the expurgated version, handed down to us by monks and servile apologists for Kings. This sordid but probably more realistic version comes across as the real deal.

Robert Zemeckis’s decision to shoot the story in the same way he made The Polar Express – by transforming real actors into digital images through “performance capture” - results in spectacular three-dimensional images. A flight across a frozen Danish landscape is beautifully portrayed, and the climactic fight between Beowulf and the dragon is as exciting a 3D sequence as I have seen. Viewed in an ordinary cinema or, worse still, on television, this would have nowhere near the same impact. Seen on the big screen, it delivers.

There are a few negatives. Zemeckis’s animators have not yet perfected their technique. Facially, the characters are like indifferently animated waxworks, as dead behind the eyes as Labour ministers listening to a speech by David Miliband. The female characters remain unlined, however old they are – it would seem that Botox may go back further into history than previously thought.

Some of the casting doesn’t work. Ray Winstone’s voice is so recognisable that it seems bizarre that his on-screen Beowulf (pictured) looks more like a younger, more gym-honed, six foot six version of Sean Bean. Winstone’s naturally cockney tones don’t lend themselves to the script’s grander rhetorical flourishes: he shouts a lot for no reason, like Dirty Den throwing a wobbly in the Queen Vic, and always seems about to flog us a used dragon.

Anthony Hopkins uses his naturally Welsh tones as Hrothgar, and carries it off; but others in the cast – most disastrously Robin Wright Penn as his young Queen – attempt the same accent, with hilariously uneven results.

The self-consciously anachronistic dialogue didn’t bother me too much, but the tendency of Grendel (Crispin Glover) and his mum to drift in and out of Anglo-Saxon is hard to understand, in every sense. And though Angelina Jolie is sexy as Grendel’s mother, her cloven-hoofed stilettos made me worry about how she could possibly negotiate her way around a slippery cave.

Testosterone-crazed boys of all ages will find Ms Jolie, and indeed the film as a whole, a guilty pleasure. However, the bawdy humour – including an Austin Powers-style sequence where the nude Beowulf manages to fight Grendel without once exposing his manhood – seems a little too calculated to appeal to dirty-minded teenagers. Quite apart from the needlessly gruesome violence, the sexual references are so crude that a 12A certificate is ridiculously irresponsible of the BBFC - it should have been a 15.

All in all, Beowulf is a dodgy mish-mash of the sublime and the ridiculous; but I’m glad I saw it in all its over-the-top glory. Even when it’s bad, it’s entertainingly bad.

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