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Breath-taking scenery, strong performances and an unexpected message
come together in Sturla Gunnarsson's Beowulf & Grendel. Forget the
dusty, inaccessible saga that may have been forced upon you in High
School or as a College Freshman in English Lit! New life is breathed
into Beowulf, the oldest text of recorded English, first set to
sheepskin in 1000 A.D. after 500 years of survival through oral
tradition. The acclaimed Canadian director of Rare Birds stays true to
the bones of what undoubtedly started as a campfire story of a battle
between Man and Monster without resorting to CGI or other special
effects. Instead, he relies on the talents of an impressive
international cast and an intelligent screenplay against the backdrop
of a stunningly primal Icelandic landscape upon which no human had set
foot in 800 years. You won't need Cliffs Notes to understand this
examination of who and what defines "Other-ness" and how it is treated.
The knee-jerk fear factor response is as prevalent today as it was in
the early Viking slice-of-life portrayed.
Beowulf & Grendel owes as much to John Gardner's Grendel as it does to the Beowulf epic. The roles of Hero and Monster do not so much embody intrinsic Good and Evil as reflect qualities attributed to their assigned archetypes. How and why we assign those roles is at the heart of the first-ever serious adaptation of the anonymous poem. The movie systematically leads us through a labyrinth of History, Cultures, the psycho-social reaction to Outsiders and the unfortunate results of those actions to the inescapable conclusion that we are not so different from one another. The ensuing Logic would then dictate that War is merely a lazy solution to a problem better addressed by examining our own psyches.
Beowulf is portrayed with astonishing depth by the Scottish actor, Gerard Butler, who is accumulating an impressive array of credits from Attila (the highest-rated U.S. mini-series) to Phantom of the Opera (the lavish 2005 Musical) to Dear Frankie (the award-winning independent Scottish film), to name a few. As always, he throws himself whole-heartedly, thoughtfully, and more important, believably, into the role of Hero, which in less-capable hands might be one-dimensional. Even the screenwriter, Andrew Berzins, was both surprised and impressed by the levels to which Mr. Butler plumbed the character "all in his facial expressions." Rising above his mastery of brooding good looks through tangled locks of hair, he manages to have us look through his eyes, rather than at his eyes - no mean feat for someone who is undeniably easy on the eyes! Beowulf emerges as the antithesis of the later Danish Prince, Hamlet, who is so introspective that he is paralyzed into inaction. In contrast, Beowulf willingly accepts the yoke of the traditional Hero and initially and immediately acts without thinking. He recognizes his Destiny in this life and beyond, stating, "I'll go where I'm sent!" He does not, however, stop there. Delving into the reasons behind his mission, he becomes a relentless, if uneasy, historical detective, needing to unearth the cause of the troll/monster Grendel's savagery.
The Hero's journey, punctuated by pre-destined acts of violence, is one in which we participate and evolve along with Beowulf, with the assistance of the witch, Selma (appropriately ambiguously played by the popular Canadian actress, Sarah Polley). Although she and Beowulf do pair off at one point, theirs is not really a romantic connection. She serves as a sort of conduit between Beowulf and Grendel, leveling the playing field between them.
Grendel is splendidly brought to heartbreaking life by Iceland's biggest Star, Ingvar Sigurdsson. Interestingly, his 4-year-old son makes a very credible acting debut as the young Grendel, orphaned in no uncertain terms at the start of the movie and laying the foundation for the carnage to come. Harking more to Gardner's Grendel than the unremittingly bloodthirsty troll of the original poem, Mr. Sigurdsson manages to express both the innocence and tragedy of Grendel with gusto, exploring his un-human characteristics without judgment. It is a tribute to his talent that rather than being horrified by a scene in which we see Grendel bowling with victims' severed heads, we identify with the spirit of pure Joy breaking through a monster's lonely existence.
Providing a context for the Hero/Monster mythos is a superb cast of supporting characters. Stellan Skarsgard is the alcoholic Danish king Hrothgar, not only unwilling to accept responsibility for the scourge of Grendel, but not even wanting to consider "why a f***ing troll does what a f***ing troll does." Eddie Marsden plays the foaming-at-the-mouth crazed Irish Catholic priest, Brendan, heralding the advent of Christianity and the desire of a people to unburden themselves of any and all accountability for their actions. And Ronan Vibert embodies the equivalent of modern day mass media as the Bard, Thorkel, through whom the saga is transformed (over Beowulf's objections) into a revisionist history which does not bear close examination. As Martin Delaney notes as the young warrior, Thorfinn, what we are left with are "tales of sh*t." The old Beowulf is not gone. The tone of the original oral tradition is maintained by Berzins' strict adherence to Anglo-Saxon and Norse root words and an ongoing thread of bawdy humor against a relentless musical score rife with tribal drums. The comic relief serves, as in Shakespeare's tragedies, to lighten and make palatable the raw impact of some harsh realities revealed. But a new Beowulf & Grendel rises from the ashes. This blood and guts epic, with its undeniably spiritual undercurrent, balances swordplay with word play, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions in the bloody aftermath. The tag line, "Heads will roll!" refers not only to the blood-soaked battle scenes, but to the thought processes set in motion that will leave you re-evaluating concepts of and motives behind Love, Loyalty, and War long after you leave the theater.
This is a very updated version of the Anglo-Saxon poem "Beowulf," using contemporary English.This movie still has the mythical, epic qualities of the poem that have inspired readers throughout the ages. In an excellent performance, Gerard Butler effectively captures the conflicted hero Beowulf as he endures the slow erosion of his military code of conduct. Beowulf & Grendel is more than a story of blood and war. Themes of vengeance, loyalty and mercy are powerfully entwined with the beginnings of Christianity in southwest Sweden in 500 AD. Another theme which is explored is human inability to tolerate that which is different. Gerard Butler is extremely effective as Beowulf, but perhaps the best performance in the movie is that delivered by the tempestuous and weirdly beautiful land of Iceland. I think this movie is definitely worth seeing.
Bear with me while I transpose my thoughts from my tangential, blonde
head and hopefully it will be worth your read.
Let me first say that Grendel engaged me throughout the movie. There were good performances by many of the cast (Butler's conflicted hero, Skarsgard's noble-but-not-so-noble king) , but Ingvar Sigurdsson owned it as Grendel. Was it the skill of the writer and director in making Grendel a vulnerable human(?) and victim (drawing a sympathy vote from the audience)? Was it Ingvar Sigurdsson's acting skills to express intense emotions and engage the audience despite virtually any words in the script and enough prosthetic make-up to impede facial expressions? All I know is that I connected with Grendel's pain. And isn't that the point?
Another prominent character was the weather. It wasn't on the casting list, but it showed up nonetheless and fought for top billing. It helped to draw you into the ruggedness of the times and the story, but I also found it distracting. Perhaps it's my own distractibility, but for whatever reason, the scenery and weather engaged me more than the story a few times.
The soundtrack was indeed beautiful, but personally, I don't think it fit. To me, the campfire-to-mead-hall timeless folktale would have been better served by a more primitive collection of instruments rather than the majestic orchestra suited to an epic. But that's just my taste.
My main criticism is that to me, the film seemed choppy. I felt like I missed out on some important parts. (I didn't take any washroom breaks, did I?) It may have been the editing. There are others who enjoyed the film much better at the second viewing, so maybe it's all there in the movie beyond my distraction by the scenery and Gerard Butler's rugged good looks. Maybe the movie did its job; after all I'm still chewing on it 2 weeks later. Who knows? I did, however, catch the humor in the film. Andrew Rai Berzins' sharp wit and humor came to the rescue and drew me back in when distractions prevailed.
I'd really like to see it a second time now that my giddiness is over. I was anticipating this movie from the time filming began, and what film can live up to a year's worth of my ruminations and expectations? Now, don't ask me to rate the film with a number. I hate numbers. They don't mean anything. You should never see a movie based on numbers. See it because you want to.
and if my review left you with more questions than answers, then I've done my job, because that's where the movie left me. Now go see the movie and find your own questions and answers.
I saw Beowulf & Grendel in Toronto at the TIFF and I loved it. The film was beautiful to behold ~ breathtaking scenery of Iceland set alongside a moving and powerful score. The entire cast delivered strong performances. Gerard Butler was a magnificent Beowulf ... emoting the torment of his soul with tender subtlety yet never compromising the intrinsic brutality and strength vital to his character. The story, modified from its original literary version to adapt to a contemporary audience, was profoundly relevant to today's political and social climate. A pleasant surprise in the film is the clever use of unexpected wit and wry humour. If you enjoy a film that will make you think ... this one is for you. natalie(GB.net)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
Beowulf and Grendel is based on the Old English epic poem of the same name. It follows Beowulf, a Geat, who travels with his compatriots to Denmark and the realm of King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård), which is besieged by a great monster, Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson). Beowulf repeatedly tries to draw Grendel out to do battle, but soon finds from the witch Selma (Sarah Polley) that there may be more the story than meets the eye.
Historical purists will probably take issue with the portrayal of the story and with the dialogue. However, judged on its own merits, Beowulf and Grendel is a fine film. The film looks epic, thanks to the on-location filming in Iceland. Butler is suitably heroic, and Sigurdsson does well with a role that has essentially no dialogue, what with being a sub-human troll and all. Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins makes use of slightly more contemporary language in the script, but without any ill effect. Director Sturla Gunnarsson has made some interesting casting choices, with Scots actors as the Geats (who are actually from Sweden), Nordic actors as the Danes, and Canadian Sarah Polley as Selma. The cast acquits themselves well, including Polley, whose Canadian accent serves to show her character's isolation from the rest of the community.
Director Sturla Gunnarsson, screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins, and actor Tony Curran did a Q&A after the film:
- They took a lot liberty with the story, especially as the poem has speeches that go on for pages. They decided to cut loose from it right away, and instead portray the story that would become the poem. As Gunnarsson put it, they tried to be true to "the bones of the story." Since the poem dates back to a Norse oral tradition, where poets would embellish stories with each telling, Gunnarsson felt they could do some of the same.
- There were a number of problems during filming, as they started shooting several months later than planned. At the time, there were a lot of hurricanes in the Atlantic, which results in very high winds. They lost four base camps, and in a single day lost eight vehicles to the 150 km/h winds.
- The ship used by the Geats is actually the Islendingur, a replica of a Viking ship from 870 AD, originally built to commemorate the anniversary of Leif Ericson's voyage to North America. The boat leaked, so four fire pumps were required to keep it afloat. However, for long shots of the boat in an iceberg-filled lagoon, the pumps had to be shut off and footage gathered quickly.
- Grendel is supposed to have the strength of 30 men, but at the same time he is not a god, which it makes hard to portray him on screen. They didn't want to create a fantastical movie, so they decided early on not to use any CG for Grendel.
- The horses used in the movie are Icelandic horses, which have three gaits unique to the breed, and uniquely suited to travel over the rocky terrain.
- The palette for the costumes if taken from the landscape.
- When casting Beowulf, they wanted someone unambiguously masculine, who could act, and who could bring some complexity to the role. Gunnarsson had seen some of Gerard Butler's films. While they weren't his cup of tea, he did find that Butler jumped off the screen.
- Gunnarsson and Polley have known one another for years. She loves Iceland and had asked to be cast in whatever he decided to film there next. Gunnarsson feels that Polley brings something to the moral conscience of the story.
- For Grendel, Gunnarsson had consulted with creature makeup director Nick Dudman, who has also worked on the Harry Potter films Dudman said that he could build prosthetics, but it would really all come from the actor.
- Sigurdsson read the script and was drawn to Grendel without any prompting from Gunnarsson. While in a bookstore in Reykjavik, an American tourist noticed that script and recommended John Gardner's book Grendel, which tells the story from Grendel's perspective.
- They weren't originally allowed to cast Skarsgård as he is not from the UK, Iceland, or Canada. On appeal to the UK authorities, they eventually agreed that it would be all right for a Norseman to play another Norseman.
- They wanted the Geats to look like a gang of bikers, not some sort of museum piece.
- On the use of humour in the script, Berzins said that there is humour in everything, and that he is frustrated by historical movies with no humour.
- Berzins said about the use of the f-word in the movie that the f-word is actually quite old, but he does realize that some people are brought forward in time when they hear it. Skarsgård was originally not a fan of its use, but by the end he was using it liberally.
- They tried to stay close to the story, but in the original, none of the characters have much in the way of motivation; Grendel just shows up and starts killing people. They felt that either he's simply evil, or he has a reason, which opens up all sorts of possibilities.
- They felt that this is a good time in history to explore the hero-myth. Beowulf is essentially a story about a warrior that goes overseas to fight a righteous quest but soon finds himself embroiled in a tribal war.
- Tony Curran said that his favourite scene is the one where the young Grendel is holding his father's severed head. Berzins' favourite is the one where Tony's character destroys the skull, he looks up, and you can see doom descend on him. Gunnarsson's favourite is Skarsgård's disintegration at the end.
I saw this fascinating bit of cinema at the "Vancouver International
Film Festival", and I have to say that I was impressed.
Not only was the filming location simply breath-taking, but the whole film seemed to capture the essence of the primitive time and it's people. A fine achievement in cinematography, wonderfully bereft of CGI. One can tell that the director and the actors put their whole heart's and soul's into this memorable work.
The classical tale of "Beowulf" can be a bit of a dry read, especially in it's original form of Old English. I found this movie to be a refreshing retelling of the original piece, with a much more human element added. The background of Grendel is thoroughly explored and the character of Beowulf is flushed out, so that he is no longer a one dimensional character as in the writings.
Good or Evil. Black or White or Shades of Grey? The movie delves into the eternal question of who is our foe and why do we fight? It is a very important question to ask and to ask often, especially in this modern day.
I am hopeful that this movie will see distribution, not only in Canada but in the US and other countries. With all the mindless drivel being released as of late, a thoughtful and well executed movie would be sheer delight to behold.
I was fortunate to see Sturla Gunnarsson's "Beowulf & Grendel" at the Toronto International Film Festival. This film is MUCH MORE than the long epic poem we read in high school! It is a film infused with humor, heart, suspense, and qualities of character and motivation which make it memorable indeed! Yes, there is violence, but that is the nature of the beast, so to speak. The story tells of people living in rather primitive circumstances (compared to modern Western standards) and war is a way of life. Without going into the story, it can safely be said that the introduction of the hero Beowulf (wonderfully played by Gerard Butler) leads to a tale of honor, friendship, loyalty, bravery, horror, and retribution. The musical score, sets, costumes, armor and weaponry, and especially the landscape (filmed entirely in Iceland!) add to the splendor of this movie. I have recommended B&G to our friends, and we hope it is widely distributed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The first clue that this film is a different take on the story is the
title. Rather than simply depicting Beowulf's killing of a one-note
Grendel as metaphor for good triumphing over evil, it is the story of
the intersection of two fully realized, complex characters. This
retelling wants us to rethink the simplistic concept of good and evil.
The first step is to give us a Grendel we can understand, and a Beowulf
weary enough of war to try.
Beowulf is a man used to that simplistic concept of war as good versus evil he's cool and efficient at killing, and when Hrothgar calls he's ready to put Grendel's head on a pole. But he's thrown off balance when Grendel won't engage. He becomes a sort of detective, not the warrior of legend but the imperfect man behind it, simply trying to get his bearings. With Butler's presence and nuanced performance, Beowulf may not be the mythically embellished warrior but is nonetheless wholly compelling, and on a human scale, heroic.
Skarsgard is amazing as King Hrothgar, a man self-destructing as he helplessly watches Grendel killing his people, consumed with hiding the fact that the catalyst was his own reckless action. Words like "walks on water" come to mind when describing Skarsgard's work. (His performance in "Aberdeen" is not to be missed).
Grendel, in an inspired performance by Ingvar Sigurosson, is a physically frightening brute with the heart of a small boy who loves his father and hates the ones who killed him. And he's smart smart enough to make buffoons out of Hrothgar and Beowulf at turns. Even without dialogue, Sigurosson gives us that Grendel we can understand.
Selma, portrayed like the glassy calm surface of a deep river by Sarah Polley, is the conscience of the piece. Her gaze is wide open - holding no illusion about the goodness of human nature and rather discomfiting to Beowulf. She's delicate and powerful, and as cool and efficient at surviving as Beowulf is at being a warrior. Beowulf goes to her for answers, but not the ones he ends up getting.
Andrew Rai Berzins' script is crisp and wry, and short on exposition, relying instead in great measure on the collaboration of the actors to tell the story, and they deliver. Hrothgar tells us with one subtle look exactly what he thinks of the blathering, apoplectic priest. Instead of writing a line of dialogue, Berzins allows Hondscioh (Tony Curran) to speak to us silently, his expression slowly reflecting the dread he sees on the faces of his mates as they realize he's just earned Grendel's wrath. And Grendel doesn't play around - much.
This film is truly a team effort, and this is the kind of team we root for. With Berzins' thoughtful and humorous script reflecting the real camaraderie of the talented cast, and Gunnarsson's direction reflecting his obvious love both for the story and for Iceland, we get a moving and beautiful film.
Usually warrior epics end with the hero vanquishing his foe in some brave and spectacular way. For this team's Beowulf, the real foe is thoughtless intolerance something not even a hero can vanquish, except within himself.
I afforded myself the opportunity to see this movie since it was showing in the same hemisphere I live in and I write this in hopes that somehow Cyb space thoughts will be transmitted to those who distribute movies. My hope is that others will be able to see this version of an ancient tale that holds so much relevance to the world we live in without having to leave their country to do it. Though I have to say Canada, in particular Vancouver is beautiful! I have never done so much homework before seeing a movie- re-read the poem Beowulf, read John Gardner's book GRENDEL and read many of the very clear statements at the Beowulf and Grendel website by the screenwriter- Andrew Berzins, who indicated that this story had been passed around for possibly centuries in the oral tradition and this was just one more possible version. So much of Western Civilization's history has come to us written down by Christian men and as such carries a certain bias. This is simply a GOOD story told with some interesting twists, fantastic landscape, and superlative acting. Provides an excellent forum to think about what does the heroic myth really refer to, and maybe we should rethink the concept of pairs of opposites-good/evil, black/white, innocent/guilty, beauty/ugliness, sane/insane.. I have a feeling that someday mankind will figure out that we are actually both sides at different times and respect that in each other. Very thought provoking movie that I hope to see in my neighborhood theater soon!
I was fortunate enough to view the world-premiere performance of Beowulf and Grendel at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September 14th, and I found it to be a hauntingly beautiful film, with some surprising comedic moments added into the mix. All of the lead actors (especially Gerard Butler as Beowulf and Stellan Skarsgard as the King) were superb in their roles, and although I have never read the original epic poem, I found that the story was very well-told and that the director and his cast definitely succeeded in delivering the many-layered messages of racial tolerance, bravery and the real meaning of heroism. The Icelandic setting was absolutely breathtaking, and I certainly agree that it became an additional character and an essential part of the story as well. Finally, the bits of comedy which resulted from Beowulf's interactions with his band of warriors were a welcome and realistic addition to a story that could have easily taken itself too seriously and become bogged down in melodrama. I highly recommend this film to those who enjoy cinematic experiences which fall outside (and well above) the normal Hollywood, cookie-cutter action films. I am also looking forward to its wide release (I hope) here in North America in the next few months, since one viewing of this weirdly wonderful film is definitely not enough!
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