Monday, December 14, 2015

The Anti-Blockbusters: Beowulf and Grendel

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Beowulf & GrendelAnybody who has had a class or two in Western Literature will know Beowulf as the aged (some might say musty) epic poem about the titular hero who defeats the wicked monster Grendel and his mother as well as a menacing dragon. This work has made it to the big screen several times including the 1999 film starring ex-Highlander Christopher Lambert as well as the big-budget motion-capture adaptation from Robert Zemeckis in 2007. In 2005, another spin on the classic tale came out from Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson which, unlike the more Hollywood-ized versions, presented an introspective, somber approach to the story.

In this movie, King of the Danes Hrothgar lives in despair as the monstrous Grendel wages war against his people and has slain many of his warriors. He sends for the aid of the legendary Beowulf who arrives at Daneland accompanied by his troop of warriors. They face off with Grendel, but the monster will not fight them and instead flees which prompts Beowulf to wonder about the claims Hrothgar has made against the creature. Beowulf eventually finds that, when Grendel was a child, the Danish king killed his father for stealing a fish, though he spared the youth out of pity. However, after Grendel matured, he waged a war of vengeance against Hrothgar and his men. The beast would not attack Beowulf and his men, though, because they had done him no wrong. In searching for the creature, they come across his cave and one of Beowulf’s warriors desecrates it. Grendel seeks revenge for this act and Beowulf eventually captures him leading to the beast’s death after he escapes by hacking off his own arm (okay, delayed spoiler warning for those who failed English Lit). This leads to Grendel’s mother arriving to avenge the death of her son and Beowulf then has do battle with her as well.

Beowulf and Grendel was produced on a much more modest budget than the Robert Zemeckis version that hit the theaters two years later and it also steered clear of the typical Hollywood style pumped-up action-hero story. Instead, the creative team for the movie used the tale as a parable of sorts for modern times. Beowulf is far from the blood-thirsty stereotype typically associated with the character — though he is surrounded by plenty of others that fit this mold. Instead, we see him as a warrior with an introspective side that questions whether force is always the correct first option in dealing with a potential threat. Now you could quite rightly argue that this gives as a very historically inaccurate view of people living during the Anglo-Saxon age, but then let’s spend a few hours reviewing the historical gaffs in a film like, say, Braveheart. Beowulf and Grendel does not pretend to offer a history lesson or a faithful adaptation of the original poem. Instead, it uses that familiar tale as a common reference point which acts as a mirror on our own world.

The movie can easily be seen as a reactionary response to the interventionist policies of the United States during the 00’s, but not to the point that it delivers little more than a Liberal diatribe. Instead, it questions the blind reliance on force through the irony of historical figures heavily associated with the warrior culture. And the Beowulf of this film gives us less of the dashing, violent hero type and more of a thinker and strategist with a conscience who understands, maybe even fears, the consequences of violence of the world he lives in.

Along with the less action-oriented, more contemplative story, the movie gives us strong performances by its very capable cast led by Gerard Butler (who would later do a very different turn with a historical character in 300). Also, the austere landscapes of the on-location shooting in Iceland lend an air of stark beauty and authenticity to the film, enhanced by the striking cinematography that brings the movie to life.

This one may disappoint those looking for the action film that its source material might suggest and it also will not help anybody with their upcoming English Lit test. But for those looking for a well-crafted story that will engage the mind and just might cause you to ponder the consequence of violence, be sure to give this film a look.

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