Monday, June 2, 2008

Defending Beowulf & Grendel

I didn’t see the CGI Beowulf last year, partly because I was waiting for a chance to see the live-action film, Beowulf & Grendel. Now that I’ve finally seen the latter, I can try to look for the former, though I doubt that I’ll like it more.

I first heard about Beowulf & Grendel when I was paying close attention to the career of Gerard Butler (like David Tennant, a Hot Scot, and the highlights of whose career has included Dracula 2000 and Dear Frankie and of course, Phantom of the Opera). The film never played in Albuquerque. It takes, as far as I can tell, a wholly different tone from its computer counterpart. The title brings the monster Grendel to the fore, which is a wholly significant fact. The film actually begins from Grendel’s point of view and looks sympathetically at him. At first I thought it was a mistake to make both hero and anti-hero (Beowulf & Grendel) sympathetic, as from a dramatic standpoint, wouldn’t it muddle everything up? To the contrary, I found it worked. The film is unfortunately uneven, but when it works, it works sublimely.

One of my favorite professors is a medieval expert, and though I never studied Beowulf the poem with her (I’ve never quite understood why we read it in core English literature courses, as it’s not English) I know that her classes looked at Grendel as, perhaps, less a bona fide monster, than someone in that Danish society who was different—a disabled person, perhaps. B &G takes its tone somewhere in that direction, with Grendel as a human-like “troll,” a super-human, rather than Siegfried’s Fafnir. No one ever answers Beowulf’s question, “What is a troll?”, so it’s unclear to me, but perhaps, with the setting in 500 A.D., the filmmakers are positing the Grendel troll-family is Neanderthal, or some primate-pre-human. It may sound absurd, but haven’t anthropologists been batting around the idea of different species of humanoids living at the same time? Interestingly, a disabled person is represented as one of the Danes—Beowulf saves him from cruel children’s blows, encouraging an even more ironic reading of the hero.

The film is entirely on location in Iceland, and not only will it rivet you, it will make you want to visit Iceland. Some of the shots are just breathtaking. And the costumes—well, visiting the National Museum in Dublin made me want to work on ancient/medieval Irish paper dolls, and I’m inspired much the same way here. There are some very clever moments of dialogue. Our first sighting of Beowulf is having been wrecked up on a Geatland beach after hunting walrus and discussing a warrior’s lot in life with a fisherman. This scene is surprisingly erudite for its simplicity. However, the decision was made to allow all the actors to keep their own accents, resulting in Scottish, English, Icelandic, and Swedish accents running rampant with the particularly grating, undisguised North American tones of Sarah Polley. A lot of the time, I just couldn’t understand what was being said. Astonishingly, for the generally strong quality of the writing, Hrothgar spends half the time just saying “f*ck.” Rome suffered occasionally from this problem of making gritty, realistic characters somewhat unbelievable potty-mouths. Plus the sheep-shagging jokes were a bit too much.

Beowulf in the original poem is a perfect Norse superman. He fights men and beasts without breaking out a sweat. This, unfortunately, made him somewhat dull to a post-modern audience. Consequently he’s been nuanced, and I must say, Gerry does much better with the moments of doubt and brooding than with the boastful hero. Physically, he’s utterly believable as Beowulf. It seemed to me that throwing in Sarah Polley’s character, the witch Selma, was entirely to concede to the fact that every film must have romance in it, even if it wasn’t written that way. However, her character is actually integral to the plot. It is interesting that Beowulf immediately zones in on her instead of all the pleasant widows left behind from the Mead Hall slayings. I can’t say too much else about her without giving the plot twists away, but I will say it would suck, suck, suck to be an unmarried Danish woman.

I’m a fan of Stellan Skarsgård. Unfortunately, by seeing the deleted scenes included on the DVD, it becomes apparent that King Hrothgar’s best scenes were cut! Nevertheless, it’s a very interesting part as per the new prologue inserted at the beginning. In the film’s universe, trolls don’t attack out of sheer spite—the Wuthering Heights-like generations of woe are actually begun by Hrothgar’s cruelty. This is a burden he must bear, especially when he lies to Beowulf about it, as well as the fact his life is spared and those of the men in his Mead Hall are savagely butchered. His queen has a small but important function as well. Of Beowulf’s band of Geats, my favorite was certainly the Bard, played by another favorite actor of mine, Ronan Vibert. This is a role full of satire and knowing nods to those who’ve read the original poem, as it wouldn’t exist without the likes of the Bard. It’s quickly established that the Bard embellishes on the truth, to the point that even Beowulf can’t stand to hear his own vainglorious tale.

Another really interesting inclusion is the Christian priest, Father Brendan. He has an Irish accent and is referred to as “the Celt.” Some of the cleverest lines of the film are in relation to him. For example, he assures Beowulf that Christ is always walking the Earth in order to bring salvation. “That’s all we need: a god who’s gone mad from lack of sleep.” Anyone who’s read the original poem sees its somewhat uneasy or schizophrenic relationship to Christianity: one minute it thanks the Norse gods, the next it thanks the Christian god. The priest character neatly explains this, as he spends most of his time in Daneland baptizing—including Beowulf’s Bard.

I began watching 300 because I quite fancied seeing Gerard Butler half-naked, but despite that, and all the special effects, I couldn’t finish it. Its glorification of violence and monotonously stark shades of black and white completely turned me off. Normally I’m all for movies made out of graphic novels, but this rather disillusioned me. Anyway, that movie espouses a completely different message than this one does. As Gerry himself points out, Grendel is a bit like the Phantom of the Opera—the representation of the Other. The fate of the Other in Phantom (at least in the 2004 film) is imprisonment, scorn, humiliation, torture, ostracization, and complete lack of love. Actually, the Phantom and Grendel react very similarly to their respective shutting-out from society: first with self-isolation, then with violence.

What Sturla Gunnarsson and Andrew Berzins’ Beowulf adds to our collective consciousness is a pause, to examine our motives for acting as the aggressor. It’s a fine line between defending yourself and loved ones and ruthlessly destroying others. As producer Douglas Hansen noted, it offers “reassessment.” Beowulf’s Geat buds are as macho as the Knights of Sarmatia in King Arthur. Beowulf is no less violent than another historical character Gerard Butler played, Attila the Hun. The carnage in the Mead Hall, so vividly described in the poem, is reproduced in all its gory detail to the letter. But it’s no more gruesome than Grendel’s arm nailed to the Mead Hall interior, or the violence enacted systematically against Selma. You couldn’t call Beowulf & Grendel an anti-war variation on a manly, doom-laden Norse theme. But it does open the channels of communication, which I really like.

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