Beowulf & Grendel [DVD]
Director : Sturla Gunnarsson
Screenplay : Andrew Rai Berzins (based on the epic poem Beowulf)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Gerard Butler (Beowulf), Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson (Grendel), Stellan Skarsgård (King Hrothgar), Sarah Polley (Selma), Eddie Marsan (Brendan the Celt), Tony Curran (Hondscioh), Martin Delaney (Thorfinn), Rory McCann (Breca), Ronan Vibert (Thorkel), Hringur Ingvarsson (Young Grendel), Spencer Wilding (Grendel’s Father)
“Just don’t take any courses where they make you read Beowulf,” Woody Allen quipped in Annie Hall (1977), essentially summarizing most people’s appreciation of the anonymously penned eighth-century epic poem that is now required reading in most high school and college lit courses. In many circles, especially young people who don’t much care for any form of popular culture produced before 1985, Beowulf is shorthand for old, stodgy, academic, irrelevant, and boring.
Beowulf & Grendel, a lavish international co-production, is a bold, if not entirely successful, attempt to sex up the Old English epic with grit, gore, and a new twist on the monstrous villain. The film doesn’t cover the entire poem, but rather just the first two-thirds, which deals with the hero-warrior Beowulf (Gerard Butler) and his battle against a rampaging troll named Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and then Grendel’s vengeful sea-hag mother (Elva Ósk Ólafsdóttir). In other words, no dragons here.
The twist that has been added is Grendel’s motivation--rather than being a simplistic monster that has been banished from society, he is a misunderstood outcast who is seeking revenge for the brutal slaughter of his father (Spencer Wilding) at the hands of King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård). Having grown up an orphan inside a cave with only his father’s mummified, disembodied head for companionship, it’s no wonder that Grendel is bitter.
This expansion of Grendel’s character complicates the story’s otherwise clear-cut divide between good and evil, with Beowulf also taking on added humanistic dimensions and complexity as he slowly realizes that Hrothgar has brought Grendel’s violence onto himself with his own cruelty. In recognizing this, Beowulf shows that he is more than a simple-minded sword-slinging warrior; rather, he is a hero with a conscience.
Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins, a veteran of Canadian television, also adds in some new characters, including a witch named Selma (Sarah Polley) who lives on the fringes of society and can supposedly foresee how men will die. Being an outcast herself, Selma is sympathetic to Grendel’s plight and becomes a sexual link between him and Beowulf. Along with the ill-fitting inclusion of modern curse words in the dialogue, Selma is the film’s most obvious sop to contemporary attitudes, but she feels oddly misplaced and therefore distracting.
Shot in the beautiful and brutal landscape of Iceland, which is meant to stand in for what is now Denmark, Beowulf & Grendel borrows a page from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy by using natural landscapes not often committed to film as a way of giving the movie an instant aura of otherworldliness. The result is a duly impressive visual palette that enhances the filmmakers’ naturalistic approach to their epic story. Director Sturla Gunnarsson, a native of Iceland who knows the terrain well, gets down and dirty in his approach, spattering his widescreen frame with mud, rain, fog, and more than a few gory dismemberments. The mostly British and Scandinavian cast disappears into long braids, tangled beards, and muddy clothes, which feels natural, but also makes many of them a little too interchangeable.
Despite all the naturalism, there are elements of the supernatural that glide around the edges of the story, particularly a startling moment when Grendel’s mother’s clawed hand rises unexpectedly from the sea and tries to grab Beowulf as he sails for Hrothgar’s kingdom. However, any sense of lavish spectacle or fantasy tends to be subsumed by Gunnarsson’s gritty visual approach, which gives the images a striking, primal immediacy that may surprise even those for whom the name Beowulf conjures only thoughts of musty academia.
|Beowulf & Grendel DVD|
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Release Date||Septmber 27, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|However it may be lacking, there is no debating that Beowulf & Grendel is an absolutely gorgeous film to watch. Anchor Bay’s transfer does a wonderful job of maintaining all the grit and detail of the Icelandic landscapes and the rough-hewn costumes and beards. The film’s color palette tends to lean toward browns, grays, and blues, but there are several scenes with startlingly vibrant colors, including the opening sequence atop a grassy cliff and a beautiful scene shot during the magic hour of twilight where Beowulf decides to help the Danes. Color, contrast, and black levels all look excellent throughout. The thundering Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack adds to the film’s effectiveness, with consistently effective use of the surround channels and a great low end that serves Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s percussion-heavy musical score well.|
|This DVD of Beowulf & Grendel will satisfy anyone interested in the background of how the film came to be, although its supplements don’t extend into the insane, arcane realms of production detail mined by other special editions. The screen-specific audio commentary by director Sturla Gunnarsson, screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins, assistant director Wendy Ord, and costume designer Debra Hanson is a good place to start, as the variety of participants give their varying perspectives on the difficulties involves in making the film. If that’s not enough, there is also roughly 26 minutes of video interviews with producer Paul Stevens, director Sturla Gunnarsson, actors Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgård, and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins, all of whom were recorded during the film’s production. Stevens and Gunnarsson talk about location filming, while Butler and Skarsgård discuss their characters and Berzins talks about why he wanted to write the film. The production featurette titled “Wrath of Gods” is actually a 10-minute excerpt from a 70-minute documentary about the making of the film (soon to be available on DVD) directed by Jon Gustafsson, who plays a small role in the film. Although short, it will give you a definite appreciation of the severe conditions under which Beowulf & Grendel was made. There is also a brief gallery of costume sketches and a short storyboard comparison that shows an animated storyboard of Grendel killing a guard and approaching the Great Hall and then the scene itself. Lastly, there are eight minutes of deleted scenes, most of which involve character development (the deleted scenes were transferred from a video source and are in nonanamorphic widescreen).|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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