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Beowulf Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    71

    Beowulf Review
    “I am Ripper... Tearer... Slasher... Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength... and Lust... and Power! I AM BEOWULF!”

    Alright, alright ... I was only asking ... no need to bite my head off, old boy.

    Although not as well-stocked as its HD counterpart and, alas, still not in 3D, the Blu-ray of Robert Zemeckis' thunderous Beowulf is exactly the type of movie to showcase on your home cinema set-up. Ok, that's a given. But the simple fact is that the film, itself, is so much more than the sum of its whiz-bang visuals and knockout CG animation that to believe it is only a hollow exercise in high-concept technology would be a profound mistake.

    Employing master fantasist Neil Gaiman and canny screenplay scribe Roger Avery to write a re-interpretation of the legend of Beowulf - altogether now, THE OLDEST SURVIVING TALE WRITTEN DOWN IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE - Robert Zemeckis manages to bring crowd-pleasing visual splendour, bawdy humour, some wild monsters and action into a CG handshake with a dark study of what it means to be a hero. We are in the 6th Century during Europe's Migration Period (in other words, running away from the Huns) and Anthony Hopkins' rampant Danish King Hrothgar is beset with troubles. Down in the dank caves over the way he has some neighbours who don't like the sound of his all-night revelries - neighbours who think nothing of gate-crashing his shindigs and carrying off the guests, those that aren't first torn limb from limb that is, to be devoured at their leisure. Naturally, with trolls at the gate, Hrothgar's merrymaking is soon cut short and his kingdom becomes a cursed wasteland.

    You know what he needs, don't you?

    Damn good soundproofing!

    Well, this being the age of swords, brawn and regularly riotous behaviour when all said and done, a mighty hero wouldn't go amiss, actually. So, it looks like old Hrothgar could be in luck, because the mightiest hero of all (so the stories say, particularly the ones that he tells, himself!) is ploughing through the raging seas to lift this flesh-rending curse from him once and for all.

    “They say you have a monster here. They say your lands are cursed. I am Beowulf and I'm here to kill your monster.”

    Ray Winstone's voice bolted on to six and half feet of chiselled muscle and issuing from a face that looks suspiciously like Sean Bean's could have worked out disastrously, couldn't it? But the gruff throatiness of Winstone's brogue, his cockney accent actually reined-in and modulated to sound somehow travelled comes over extremely well. And the funny thing is that the more you hear him speak, the more those Sean Bean features seem to morph into Winstone's, the bizarre DNA mix-up that your mind is trying to make sense of rendered null and void in the end because of the sheer force of personality that is burning through the CG makeover. Even Anthony Hopkins, prancing disturbingly around in Hrothgar's embarrassingly loose robes, convinces as a clapped-out, frightened monarch. His face and body are there for all to see - a slip of the CG artist and there would, perhaps, be even more offered up for scrutiny - and, for all the world, it looks and acts and emotes as though the renowned thesp were performing the part sans all those daft little reflectors that make motion-capture possible. His pivotal scene with Beowulf as he realises just what the hero is trying to hide from him has that sure-fire twinkle in his eyes that his Don Diego from The Mask Of Zorro (“She knows ... Don Rafael.”) and his Hannibal the Cannibal equally possess completely in evidence. Sadly, the rest of the cast do not fare so well as our hero and his cursed employer. Brendan Gleeson's copper-topped Wiglaf may resemble his look from Kingdom Of Heaven but there is something wrong about his expressions and his eyes, something too cartoonish. His aging incarnation during the latter half of the film does look much better, however - seemingly the more wrinkles you add, the more authenticity you gain. John Malkovitch's conniving Unferth looks like a waxwork come to life and poor old Angelina, so unbelievably alluring in her negligee of dripping gold, her organic high heels and that exquisitely rendered pout, perturbs with eyes that do strange things as she circles around her new paramour, things that deliver the creeps in ways that her watery witch is not supposed to. Of course, the rest of her looks absolutely fine - love that serpentine coil of plaited hair. But, by far the worst central character would be that of Robin Wright Penn's haunted Queen Wealthrow, who looks simply dreadful as far as I am concerned - blank and zombified, she is like a holdover from the ghastly, lifeless Polar Express. Background figures naturally haven't quite the definition, or the grace that the principles possess, but save for some occasional woodenness of movement, they still acquit themselves reasonably well. You're never going to be fooled into thinking that these are living, breathing entities, but I have no problem whatsoever with this filmmaking tool being employed so extensively. But don't get me started on those horses that look as though they have just galloped away from Shrek! Although there is one sequence - Wiglaf making that leap across the burning bridge - when horse and rider look pretty darned fantastic, with flames, action and editing coming together in a much more convincing way than, say, the CG in the very similar sequence in Van Helsing.

    “The sea is my mother! She would never take me back to her murky womb!”

    But the character of Beowulf needs more discussion. Bold and brazen and the figurehead of what amounts to a motley band of mercenaries - quite unlike the John McTiernan/Michael Crichton adaptation The 13th Warrior, in which all were veritable heroes - Beowulf arrives with a tempest of adulation and awe. But he is not so simple a super-warrior of far-reaching renown as, say, Conan is. Rather he is a complex and self-deluding champion whose very flaws will become horribly exploited during his adventures with Grendel and the creature's scheming mother. In a way, this story pokes fun at the conventional action hero, offering up his brawn and machismo as nothing more than traits to be used and abused by the manipulations of ... well, a woman. It's that true-to-life cliché that blokes don't like to admit. I don't care who you are, or how noble your intentions - if you are a heterosexual male you WILL fall from grace when a woman turns on the charm. Oh, our cinematic heroes always fall for the girl, but never so quickly, nor so completely. Beowulf, in this version, is something of a revelation as far as this goes. We even see him falter whilst telling a tall tale as he recalls something feminine and nefarious that he would rather not speak of. Again, this is the stock in trade of Neil Gaiman, who can paint even the stoutest of hearts as fragile and corruptible. Personally, I prefer this aspect to the obvious alternative of the indomitable hero who can overcome all - it makes the hero so much more credible. Our contemporary movie fall guys - cops, soldiers, etc - have to have some sort of haunted past, something that plagues and helps them to live on the “outside”, the maverick wildcard. But rarely do they actually face and overcome these traumas in order to survive the story. And it is even rarer that these traumas should actually be of their own creation. Therefore, Beowulf, who only in the second half of the story fits into this contemporary category, is actually a groundbreaker in this particular field of heroism. Not in this tale do we get the quick confession and forgiveness for prior sins - the characters here have lived with colossal shame for years and like the ring in Tolkein's The Lord Of The Rings, the hidden truth has corrupted and blighted them. So, you see, this is much more than a mere cavalcade for Zemeckis to show off his new toys. And we don't need reams of dialogue and scenes of hand-wringing anguish to explain it, either. Wary, as well as weary, looks, the unspoken recognition in a fellow sinner's eyes, the touching pain evinced as certain characters realise who they have just slain - such pathos is now not merely the province of live action.

    This may be CG, but it is, first and foremost, a story. And, as such, it delivers a moving statement about the nature of honour and sacrifice, integrity and shame. It is also worth noting that the script even adds further dimensions when it brings in the onset of Christianity as the new religion that is sweeping over Europe. Beowulf, himself, remarks about how it has virtually eradicated the Age of Heroes and whilst Unferth glibly accepts such new doctrines, Hrothgar maintains that help will only come if they pray to their usual gods. The sight of a cross burning in dragon's breath makes a defiant Old World statement, too, and I find it amusing that Unferth chooses a moment of joint-urination to inform a future member of his flock of the ways of God. Who hasn't had some drunk spouting such stuff at them in the Gents down the local boozer? I also like the way that Beowulf is possibly just as cocky, bluff and irresponsible as his rowdy chums. When first arriving at Hrothgar's hang-out, all he is interested in is cracking open the mead. And even when his men are cavorting with the local women - whose husbands have all been conveniently killed by Grendel - he even strips butt-naked in front of his employer's wife, singing his own praises as he does so. Top bloke. And listen out for the exquisite line when a frustrated warrior just after a quickie in the frosty night air chances his luck with the classic “Well then, how about a quick gobble?” Priceless.

    “Are you the one they call Beowulf? Such a strong man you are. A man like you could own the greatest tale ever sung. Beowulf... Stay with me. Give me a son, and I shall make you the greatest king that ever lived. This... I swear...”

    The action is terrific, too, although this is not essentially a film that depends so much on big-scale battles as it does on simmering character-play and ever-darkening moods. Beowulf's snapping-jawed, oceanic opponents during his swimming race with Brecha are all that are needed to provide us with proof of his heroic prowess - even if the scene does remind, somewhat, of Disney's Hercules' similar exploits - before having him take on Grendel. And even here there is still a question mark over really happened out there at sea, Beowulf selling his own myth with varying degrees of implausibility depending on whom he trying to impress. Likewise his exploits after his tussle with the tumour-riddled troll. Many other films would have gone on to exhibit more slaughter, more war to furnish Beowulf with his epic status as a legendary Northern king - but Zemeckis and co. cut brutally to a wizened old Beowulf sitting on his horse upon a ridge overlooking the last moments of a massed clash in the valley below. When I first saw the film at the flicks I actually believed that we would subsequently be treated to flashbacks of him in action before the final showdown with the dragon. Yet, for all this eerie lack of derring-do, you never once lose any ounce of respect for the mighty one's strength and ability in combat. Something in the style of Winstone's performance, Gaiman's script and the prevailing tone of the movie enforces our belief in Beowulf and our awe at his imposing, yet likeable, presence. His raging-cum-forgiving confrontation with a lone enemy raider is a truly remarkable scene. Cold, sorrowful and bulging with hidden regret, Beowulf beats down an opponent with only his sheer verbal conviction and an air of embittered doom. This is a truly powerful moment and one that you can imagine Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas rising to with live-action relish. “Give him a gold piece and send him home ...he has a story to tell.” The spell of Neil Gaiman's prose sparkles in such melancholy scenes as this. Dark warrior mythos dispelled by the winds of change and a hero's rant at the sheer waste of it all.


    But then when the action comes - the big fight with the dragon - Zemeckis breaks all bonds and pushes the envelope with a simply deranged set-piece that allows for skirmishing on the ground, in the air and even under the sea. A powerhouse sequence that more than makes up for the lengthy spells of broken-hearted soul-searching, Beowulf's rousing finale is the type of thing that many thought the film would be stuffed to the gills with. Amazingly edited and seamless in its array of full-throttle stuntage, the dragon-fight is boisterous stuff. Sadly, we don't really care about any of the slain along the way - the sundry barbequing or simple flattening of warriors racing along cliff-tops - but then the Gaiman/Avery script doesn't much care about collateral damage, its prime directive one of intimate lust and betrayal. Even Beowulf's own men, whom we almost begin to tell apart during their first night in the Mead Hall, are soon relegated to simple troll-fodder and practically never seen again. Batteries of huge crossbows flank the gorge but we have never really seen how Beowulf has built up his kingdom into such a military might, the passage of time a victim of the fractured narrative that the original poem suffered from. In many ways, this plotting shortcut is open to attack, but Gaiman and Avery, despite their own voiced justifications for tampering with the original text, have written their screenplay with one eye open for the fairy tale cushion that most heroic legends need to camouflage their flimsy internal logic. Put quite simply, the events that we aren't privy to don't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

    “If we die... it will be for glory, not gold.”

    And what of the monsters?

    Well, besides the obvious point being that it is possibly easier to view the humans as the real monsters in this power-play due to their easily-led and then dishonourable ways, Gaiman and Avery have been quite crafty in their depiction of the Grendel family. Crispin Glover, horribly recognisable through the multitude of CG pus and sores, makes for a truly tragic and pathetic troll. The tumour on his head which results in an exposed ear-drum is much more pitiful than gruesome, his twisted speech from a malformed jaw - a terrific mixture of garbled Old and New English - is heartrending, and his very bestiality is questionable at best, no matter how many heads he munches. It is through the relationships that the Family Grendel's horror is best portrayed. His mother may be cooing and gentle, singing sweet, briny lullabies to his wretched form, but what kind of mother would allow for such accursed offspring in the first place, who wasn't already plotting the overthrow of an empire? With her father-hopping ways - and you can draw as many modern-day parallels to this as you like - Jolie's sultry demon is a parasite living off the ignorant and short-lived bliss of her suitors who all, in turn, shun the fruits of their own gullible labours. The Child Support Agency would have a field day with this lot. It is even quite canny the way that Grendel's physical form alters when he meets the veritable stepfather who will soon muscle his way into the family home - as though already aware that he is becoming a cast-off. His half-brother, the Dragon, is purely the stuff of legend, though. One of the best and most ferocious dragons that I've seen - except for Vermithrax Pejorative from Disney's darkest hour Dragonslayer - and a sheer visual feast. I love the great peek-a-boo moment when he looms up behind an unwitting damsel on the battlement and the fantastic snout and fang-mesh look he sports as he barrels underwater, little plumes of flame flickering in the deep blue. Kudos goes to the marvellous manner in which his real form is revealed too - in shadow or reflection at first, then in an amazing surf-buffeted transformation. Impressively done.

    “He was ... the best of us.”

    I've talked at length at Alan Silvestri's booming score for Beowulf already (see separate review of the soundtrack CD), but it is worth commenting here on how well it fits the imagery. The top-flight brass and percussion of his orchestra raises the roof with rousing fanfares and his synthesised textures supply musical complement to the CG advances visualised onscreen. The glorious, golden-bathed seduction scenes of Jolie's amber-temptress are striking enough, but Silvestri's mysterious and melancholic harp, strings and bass theme adds a bewitching note of ominous desire that elevates both sequences with sensual danger. And, of course, his dragon-battling music is pure aural adrenaline.

    Overall, this an epic story that somehow doesn't feel long-drawn out, preachy or too contemporary, even with the acutely modern filmic style with which it has been made. The story is good to enough to have lasted centuries and, without it, we wouldn't have had The Lord Of The Rings, Conan The Barbarian or even the template for the fictional action heroes, or even classical Superheroes who continue to entertain us with their pure escapist machismo. Hell, even Rambo owes a thing or two to Beowulf's fearless legend. Excellent stuff that is all the better for not conforming quite to the expected format of a gung-ho action adventure.

    This Director's Cut of Beowulf is only slightly extended with gorier killings - the leg-ripping, some more blood issuing from the two blokes hurled back onto spikes and, best yet, the horridly brutal squeezing of the juice out of an upturned half-corpse into Grendel's greedy mouth - and the odd little extra glimpse of the orgiastic nature of Hrothgar's parties. But this is definitely a harder and more rewarding cut.