19 March 2006 | paterfam001
A perhaps nuanced view of the movie?
My motive for seeing this film was mostly curiosity. I read it long ago (in a past almost as dim and distant as the times of the Geats), as a requirement for Grad English, and I wanted to know what a more modern sensibility would make of it. On the whole, I thought the film-maker was confused by it, and was forced by his twenty-first-century prejudices to turn it into something it wasn't. What he did, in fact, was feminize it.
If this had been the result of real artistic vision, it might have worked, but it wasn't; it was done by the book, in a Sensitivity 101 fashion, and inconsistently, so that the result wasn't either mythic or modern. Or not the way the film-makers hoped, anyway. Instead of being a synthesis, it was an uneasy mix.
Oh, it was moderately entertaining to a modern man and woman, the scenery was magnificent and the cinematography splendid - almost a given, these days. The acting, with one important exception, was very good. I'm glad I saw that and not... what was the other one? Snow dogs in Peril? Oh, 'Eight Below'. 'Beowulf and Grendel' was actually about something, and not just 'based on actual events' - the usual witless excuse for a dull and meandering story.
What was Beowulf about? Originally - think about this - the tellers and hearers of this tale lived the dullest and most dangerous existence possible. They were pioneers, always on the jagged edge of starvation, faced with endless toil and unremitting vigilance, just to survive against an unremittingly hostile environment. They must have longed for a single villain, an enemy they could strike at and defeat, once and for all. Thus, Grendel. Grendel is all their fear and drudgery rolled into one. And Beowulf. He is them, all rolled into one, their collective courage and strength.
It might be possible to adapt this to modern ideals, but it has to be re-imagined, which likely means changing time and place to, let's say, the recent old-west, the populace to sodbusters, the Grendel-menace to an unbeatable black-hat gunslinger and the hero to the man in buckskin. You can't just graft modern attitudes onto ancient warriors and pretend you've done something new and significant.
The addition of the witch, Selma, played by my countrywoman Sarah Polley, is the worst of the modernist grafts. She plays the part almost without affect, as if all her actions were the product of cool rational thought, and didn't matter very much, anyway. I picture the director ranting at her in Icelandic, while a very polite translator murmurs, "more intense, please". I hate to bad-mouth one of the more intelligent actresses of our time, and one most loyal to her Canadian Roots, but she really dropped the ball on this one, and it affects the whole movie's credibility. If she'd been crazier, dirtier, more savage, more a part of the threatening Other, the role might have worked. Since she chose to preserve the proprieties of a modern girl --don't flip out, even when a troll is ravishing you -- she sinks the whole enterprise.
Final comment: handsome, amusing, entertaining, but highly flawed.