Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Beowulf" Worthy of the Legend

We just got home from watching Robert Zemeckis’ animated “Beowulf” tonight (in Imax 3D!) and we’re still stunned. This is a big, savage, beautiful to look at (especially the exquisitely digitally-rendered Angelina Jolie), terrifying and yet thoughtful picture worthy of the legacy of the ancient Anglo Saxon poem.

There’s no point in summarizing the plot – chances are, you’ve read the original, or read or seen one of the legion of books and films re-imagining it or inspired by the tale in some way, or you’ve at least heard about it and get the basic gist. In fact, because the story’s so well known, it’s almost hard to spoil the movie by talking about it. And yet, because this rendition varies from the original in some ways (like Grendel’s origin) which add nuances that give the film a more powerful dramatic and intellectual impact. While it explodes onto the screen right from the start with Grendel’s truly frightening attack on Hrothgar’s mead hall and storms along through Beowulf’s battle with the dragon, it also takes time to season itself with quiet moments of introspection and emotional confrontations between characters, making this very much a grown-up story. (I shudder to think what kind of mockery or videogame it would have turned into if a director like Bruckheimer had gotten a hold of it.)

But it’s interesting to make a brief comparison of this film to other somewhat recent versions of the story. Unlike 2005’s underappreciated gem “Beowulf and Grendel” (directed by Sturla Gunnarsson), where Gerard Butler’s title hero was very much a man, and one not overly fond of a tough-guy reputation at that, Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery (and, to be fair, actor Ray Winstone) have kept their Geatish hero very close to the original in terms of superhuman strength and endurance, and insured that he remained true to the typical Norse warrior mindset of the time that one had to help spread the myth of one’s prowess by boasting frequently and largely.

That being said, Zemeckis’ Beowulf is not just a one-dimensional big lug. Despite his larger-than-life abilities and antics, he is a man painfully aware of his own shortcomings (as some of those around him are also aware). It is this tension within the character, along with other plot devices like Grendel’s origin, that make Zemeckis’ movie very, very similar to Parke Godwin’s exceptional 1995 novel “The Tower of Beowulf”. In fact, I wonder if Zemeckis, Gaiman or Avery have read Godwin’s rendition and were influenced by it. I’m not alleging anything underhanded here, not at all, just curious as to whether they ever came across the book and if so, what sort of impact it might have had on them. In fact, despite the groaning pile of new novels scattered around my study, this movie has tempted me to go back and read “The Tower of Beowulf” again (as well as the original poem – which is pretty much a given).

Hats off to all of the actors too, for breathing life into these believable characters, both the human and the inhuman. That being said, the one performance I haven’t made up my mind about yet is that of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar. Hopkins plays the old king as jovial, frequently drunk and silly, somewhat weak and ultimately tragic. Not like the kind of forceful personality one would imagine a person would have to be to rise through bloody years to become a wealthy Norse king. No, Hopkins’ Hrothgar felt to me more like the manager of a small bank branch in a small-to-mid-sized out-of-the-way town, or kind of like old Fezziwig in Dickins’ “A Christmas Carol”. By contrast, Stellan Skarsgard, in “Beowulf and Grendel”, played a Hrothgar beset by demons (both internal and external), drink and the end of his people’s traditional way of life, but you could believe that this was a man who was once, and still remained on some level, very dangerous. To paraphrase an old Shakespearean prof from my university days, Skarsgard taught me things about Hrothgar. Hopkins, on the other hand… I don’t know. I normally enjoy his performances (especially as Van Helsing in Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), but I think I’ll have to watch this movie again to make up my mind.

But that won’t be a tough sell. Not only is “Beowulf” worth paying full price to see at the theatre, it’s worth paying full price to see again.
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