Beowulf (film, 2007)

A review of the animated take of the ancient poem, from Death Ray 9.


Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writers: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary

Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, Crispin Glover

Beowulf would be proud indeed. It’s not every hero whose name is still recognised a millennium and a half after they lived. The height of a Germanic warrior’s existence was to have his deeds memorialised in song and remembered forever, but remarkably few succeeded. Time, fire, war and forgetfulness have erased the memories of many of our forebears, their struggles and exploits, fair and foul, will be forever obscured by the mists of time. And yet here is Beowulf still, his killing of the monster Grendel transmitted even through a massive change in the language that has rendered our ancestral tongue unintelligible to most of us.

Not only is he back, he’s much, much larger than life, plastered across the cinema screen. All the unsung warriors in Valhalla will be sulking mightily should they get a glimpse of this.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Beowulf is a hero who is asked by King Hrothgar of the Danes to kill a monstrous creature named Grendel, who has taken to killing and eating the king’s retainers. Beowulf kills Grendel by ripping his arm off, then when the creature’s mother enacts her revenge, he kills her too.

Years later Beowulf is king in his homeland, when a dragon goes on the rampage after a golden horn is stolen from its hoard. Beowulf takes up his sword Naegling once more and in slaying the dragon is slain himself.

At least, that’s the gist of it.

Beowulf is a big, muscular thing of a movie, as proud and boastful as its hero. State of the art CGI animation, based on advanced motion capture technology, is hurled out of the screen in an impressive display of aggressive pixels. Thankfully, subtlety remains. The money might all be American, but the sensibilities remain happily English. This is not a gross Hollywood take on this legend of legends, not Johnny Rambo does trolls, but a faithful adaptation whose minor reworking of the legend uses its time on the silver screen to ask us questions of hero-hood. Obviously it’s inevitable that the story would change a little, the poem comes from the end of a time of clannish bloodletting and celebrates hard-as-nails violent bastards. Living in a slightly more civilised era, we enjoy seeing a strong-armed warrior fight as much as our ancestors, but now we have to question their blood-soaked quest for glory, or we feel bad, and therefore so must Beowulf. He’s a cocky cockney to begin with, but the march of years brings wisdom and doubt. It’s a heroic saga alright, but with 21st century hubris.

Herein lies the major change to the story – that the ravages of both Grendel and the dragon are the direct results of the weaknesses of heroic men. Grendel’s mother (she’s played by pixel-perfect recreation of a naked Angelina Jolie, so you can guess she’s no hag in this version) is not killed but used as a bridge between the two episodes of Beowulf’s life described in the poem. Both Grendel and Dragon are her offspring, sired by mighty men, and she remains a constant to the end. Rather than returning home to Geatland, Beowulf inherits kingdom, queen and crown from Hrothgar, and the curse of the sea-witch along with it.

This meddling with our oldest epic is small coin to pay in exchange for such a pretty tale, and to berate the filmmakers for their need to service the audience’s obsession with tidy narrative would be churlish in the extreme. As the Christian poet who wrote the story down 400 years after the fact adapted it to fit his time, so have Gaiman and Avary to better reflect our own sensibilities. It goes no further than this.

The film’s story flows by swiftly, numerous exhilarating set pieces gobbling up its length of nearly two hours as hungrily as Grendel munches heads. But it’s in the first half, where Crispin Glover’s Grendel attacks and is then bested by Beowulf, that much of the film’s excitement lies. Some of Grendel’s actions are of such violence that if the film weren’t a cartoon it would have a much higher certificate, and more sensitive kids will find elements of these sequences frightening, as Grendel, realised as a large troll with scaly, slime covered skin and zombie-like exposed organs, dances as he deals frenzied death to Hrothgar’s hapless thanes in a Heorot lit by enchanted blue flame. Be assured, the stills of Grendel you have seen do not do the creature justice – he is an effective monster, ghoulish, terrifying and pitiful.

The battle with the dragon is less impressive, partly because of its gold colour. Gold is important in the film, representing lust and ambition besides pure greed. Angelina Jolie’s naked witch literally drips with it, an effective visual metaphor for the ardour her treasures, fleshly and metallurgical alike, raise in men, but the dragon is so large that its metallic hues make it seem akin to King Ghidorah of Godzilla or a vulgar hood ornament. It’s too bright and garish a thing to fully blend with Beowulf’s dark and weather-lashed world. Whereas the battle with Grendel is close-fought and well framed by Heorot’s dark-raftered closeness, the dragon fight succumbs to action-film excess as Beowulf swings up a rope to ride the beast, is dragged to the bottom of the sea, impales it with an anchor and then does something unpleasant to himself in order to crush the beast’s small heart, all while it is attacking Beowulf’s (anachronistic, I might add) castle, providing a bit of damsel-in-distress action, the  only cliche in the film. (An earlier sequence involving cyclopean sea monsters includes similar feats, but is easier to take, as it is a visualisation of Beowulf’s own retelling of his swimming match with Breca).

Like the sea monsters, the film is crammed with such asides, most of the material taken from the poem itself – a recitation of part of Beowulf’s deeds in Old English, the dragon slain by Hrothgar being named Fafnir, debate about the new god versus the old (Christianity gets short shrift) – which set the film firmly in the same ancient traditions as the poem it sprang from.

Technically Beowulf is astounding, and you forget you are watching CG characters at times. The motion capture gives us living, breathing characters a million miles from the wooden mannikins of Polar Express, the usage of actors as a basis for full facial movements removes much of the exaggerated gestures associated with hand animated creations. Ray Winstone probably wishes he has a body like that of the CG Beowulf, but as pretty as his digital avatar is, it is undeniably Winstone. For a movie made of nothing but numbers, it has real humanity – the heroes aren’t real, but by Odin, they act. In Beowulf, real performances shine through.

The film is being released as 3D countrywide, and if you can, see it in this format, if not at an Imax. There are a few gimmicky shots that have been included purely to accentuate the 3D, while in other parts of the film where 3D could really shine, such as the climactic battle, the technique has not been as effectively employed as it could have been. Still, this combination of CG and 3D is probably something we’ll be seeing again, so powerful it is in dragging you into Beowulf’s world, rough round the edges though it is.

There’s the odd flat note, the horses do not run like horses but like Toy Story 2’s Bullseye. In some scenes the 3D goes a bit ‘pop-up book’, and some misalignment of the two images caused a bit of ghosting at the screening we attended. But this does not detract from the overall feeling that you’re looking through a window into a living world of flawed heroes, not watching a cartoon.

Intelligent, thrilling, visually rich and above all else, true to the heart of the source material and our own times, Beowulf is a worthy update and an enthralling spectacle.

  1. Beowulf is the only full-length epic poem that survives in English from this period.
  2. The action of the poem transpires in the 6th century, during the Migration Period, when tribes all over Europe, under pressure from the Huns, were moving to pastures new. Two of the results were the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the foundation of our own nation.
  3. Beowulf was a Geat. Though he’s known through an English poem, he’s actually from Sweden.
  4. Geatland is modern day Götland. The Geats and the Svear were the two Germanic tribes that founded Sweden. Sverige, the Swedish for Sweden, comes from Svear Riket – Kingdom of the Swedes.
  5. Many of the characters in the poem are personages who crop up in other records, making the dating of the action possible.
  6. The poem is an important historical document recording, albeit in semi-legendary form, power struggles between various tribes.
  7. There is only one surviving manuscript of Beowulf, copied around 1000AD by two scribes.
  8. The poem we have today is a literary endeavour adapted from earlier oral poems. It contains literary devices that would make it difficult to recite aloud.
  9. Several allusions to the Bible can be found in the poem.
  10. Anglo-saxon poetry is complex, involving rhyming as well as alliteration. A characteristic of it is ‘kenning’ – a self-contained metaphor that names one thing by reference to another, eg ‘whale road’ for sea. The name Beowulf itself is probably a kenning, ‘bee wolf’, meaning bear.

Did you know?

Fafnir the dragon comes from the Legend of the Rhinegold, and was killed by Sigurd the Volsung. There’s another film version of Beowulf, 1999’s The Thirteenth Warrior, though it has no-one called Beowulf in it. (I love that film). You can read a review of a 2005 Beowulf film, Beowulf and Grendel, here.


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