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Movie Review - Beowulf and Grendel

Last night my wife and I saw "Beowulf and Grendel". It is a joint British, Canadian and Icelandic production based on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem.

First from the history point of view, it looked and felt amazing. Hollywood has NEVER done Vikings so well. In the scene where Beowulf (Gerard Butler) and the Geats come ashore to save the day (in the manner of the Magnificent Seven and countless other heroic films) I couldn't help drawing unflattering comparisons between this movie and "The Thirteenth Warrior". Beowulf and his homies, in their simple mail shirts and conical helmets looked so much more dangerous and formidable than that bizarrely attired motley crew in "Thirteenth Warrior", a film which actually had some other virtues to recommend it.

I also loved the Vikings' tendency to switch suddenly between poetic narrative and vulgarity ("Fucking trolls" may become a catch phrase around our house).

One of my favorite parts was a bit of throw away scene at the beginning where Beowulf swims ashore (in mail mind you--he is a hero) after a walrus hunting accident and is rescued by a fisherman. The fisherman, after teasing Beowulf about being nibbled on by eels, and asking him if he minded a meal, made from those eels, which would taste like him--gave out a wonderful bit of authentic Norse world view. He said he was in debt to the fish who sustained him, but that some day the fish would get their own back. They would have their revenge.

This was very much the leitmotif of the film, since it was largely about Grendel's revenge on the Danes; but it also felt very true to the Norse mindset. They didn't have the word "karma", but they did seem to have a well developed sense of cosmic cause and effect. Garrison Keillor would probably put it: "If things are going well, don't worry, it will pass".

There were a few bits that were a bit jarring. One of the first was accents. Beowulf and the Geats had, for the most part, thick Scottish accents--which was cool. They came from a different part of Scandinavia and they should speak differently, and since Old Norse would have been a bit of a challenge, Scottish was a nice short hand for Geatish. The Danes were more or less Scandinavian accented English, though that was not consistent. What was most jarring, among this interesting European accent mix, was the witch (Sarah Polly) who had a flat (I think) Canadian accent. Hmmm.

Another was the setting. It was filmed in the barren, mountainous wastes of Iceland. Perhaps if I had never actually been to Scandinavia, it wouldn't have been an issue, but I kept thinking "Denmark doesn't look that grim". However, I would suppose as a setting for a story about harshness and cruelty, the harsh cruel landscape of Iceland would be appropriate.

There were also a few odd bits. There was an Irish Christian missionary, which seemed a bit premature in the Norse lands in the 6th Century (they set it in the pre-Viking era, in the year 521 by a reference to Clovis the Frank). However, the monk was a good vehicle for showing the wonderfully pragmatic Norse view of religion, with, at one point, King Hrothgar wearing a Thor's Hammer and a Christian Cross around his neck, since Thor alone wasn't doing the trick, Troll-wise.

I really liked Stellan Skarsgard's depiction of King Hrothgar. Since I saw him in "King Arthur", I thought he was born to play Vikings. A friend of mine once observed that he found it hard to believe that the taciturn occupants of modern Scandinavia were the offspring of the ferocious Vikings. My answer to that would be Stellan Skarsgaard.

To conclude, I would strongly recommend this for anyone who wants to see a film that really tries to embrace the Norse, rather than fit them to modern sensibilities, and which stands up as a pretty good adventure yarn. Unfortunately, it is in VERY limited release and has received ZERO publicity in the US. I saw it at the Westside Pavillion in West Los Angeles, but I fear it won't be there much longer. You may have to wait for it to come to cable or DVD.

PS I loved the Nordic ponies with their tiny-tiny legs running really fast. It was almost comical in a historically authentic way, and a good demonstration of why the Vikings didn't do cavalry.