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Film Review: Beowulf (2007)

Beowulf (2007; Directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Robert Zemeckis’ constant interest in technological innovation bears its juiciest fruit in more than a decade with Beowulf, a lusty, red-blooded, visually-stunning epic. Obviously influenced by Zach Snyder’s blood-smeared style-fest 300, Zemeckis makes a film that is both more impressive, more literate, and ultimately more human, despite the weird, highly-glossed detachment the motion-capture animation still imparts.

I don't really need to make the phallic joke here, do I?

As an adaptation of the venerable Old English poem, that bane of English majors everywhere, it’s perhaps not as good. Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary tie the episodic structure (with its vaguely connected battles and lengthy narrative asides about Beowulf’s past exploits) together admirably, some historical context is built in, and the sturdily elegiac tone of the poetry is largely preserved. The changes to the plot that give Beowulf (Ray Winstone) a different and closer relationship to both Grendel’s mother (a gold-clad seductress who could only be played by Angelina Jolie) and the dragon build up dramatic effect at the cost of the dilution of the poem’s thematic power, sure. But this is cinema, and the conventions are simply different than in Anglo-Saxon poetry. It should be an obvious point, but there you go.

The film’s strengths and weaknesses are exemplified in the character of Grendel (mo-capped and given strangled, guttural vocalizations by Crispin Glover, working with Zemeckis for the first time since their tiff over Glover’s sort-of appearance in the Back to the Future sequels). A monstrous personification of mankind’s sins in the poem (“the son of Cain”), Grendel is instead made into a curse on Anthony Hopkins’ Hrothgar, his cross to bear for his own sins, as the dragon later is for Beowulf. This lessens Grendel’s impact considerably, which is unfortunate because, as a visceral creation, Grendel is rather indelible, with his horrid deformities, pained screams, and desperate Gollum-esque muttering (in Old English, no less). The whole film is like that; chocked full of amazing images and good ideas, but ultimately missing the thematic boat on the first surviving piece of literature written in the English language. But it’s still pretty fun, nonetheless, which is not a word that tends to be applied to Old English epic poetry very often.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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