Breath-taking scenery, strong performances and an unexpected message come together in Sturla Gunnarsson's Beowulf & Grendel. Forget the dusty, inaccessible saga that may have been forced upon you in High School or as a College Freshman in English Lit! New life is breathed into Beowulf, the oldest text of recorded English, first set to sheepskin in 1000 A.D. after 500 years of survival through oral tradition. The acclaimed Canadian director of Rare Birds stays true to the bones of what undoubtedly started as a campfire story of a battle between Man and Monster without resorting to CGI or other special effects. Instead, he relies on the talents of an impressive international cast and an intelligent screenplay against the backdrop of a stunningly primal Icelandic landscape upon which no human had set foot in 800 years. You won't need Cliffs Notes to understand this examination of who and what defines "Other-ness" and how it is treated. The knee-jerk fear factor response is as prevalent today as it was in the early Viking slice-of-life portrayed.
Beowulf & Grendel owes as much to John Gardner's Grendel as it does to the Beowulf epic. The roles of Hero and Monster do not so much embody intrinsic Good and Evil as reflect qualities attributed to their assigned archetypes. How and why we assign those roles is at the heart of the first-ever serious adaptation of the anonymous poem. The movie systematically leads us through a labyrinth of History, Cultures, the psycho-social reaction to Outsiders and the unfortunate results of those actions to the inescapable conclusion that we are not so different from one another. The ensuing Logic would then dictate that War is merely a lazy solution to a problem better addressed by examining our own psyches.
Beowulf is portrayed with astonishing depth by the Scottish actor, Gerard Butler, who is accumulating an impressive array of credits from Attila (the highest-rated U.S. mini-series) to Phantom of the Opera (the lavish 2005 Musical) to Dear Frankie (the award-winning independent Scottish film), to name a few. As always, he throws himself whole-heartedly, thoughtfully, and more important, believably, into the role of Hero, which in less-capable hands might be one-dimensional. Even the screenwriter, Andrew Berzins, was both surprised and impressed by the levels to which Mr. Butler plumbed the character "all in his facial expressions." Rising above his mastery of brooding good looks through tangled locks of hair, he manages to have us look through his eyes, rather than at his eyes - no mean feat for someone who is undeniably easy on the eyes! Beowulf emerges as the antithesis of the later Danish Prince, Hamlet, who is so introspective that he is paralyzed into inaction. In contrast, Beowulf willingly accepts the yoke of the traditional Hero and initially and immediately acts without thinking. He recognizes his Destiny in this life and beyond, stating, "I'll go where I'm sent!" He does not, however, stop there. Delving into the reasons behind his mission, he becomes a relentless, if uneasy, historical detective, needing to unearth the cause of the troll/monster Grendel's savagery.
The Hero's journey, punctuated by pre-destined acts of violence, is one in which we participate and evolve along with Beowulf, with the assistance of the witch, Selma (appropriately ambiguously played by the popular Canadian actress, Sarah Polley). Although she and Beowulf do pair off at one point, theirs is not really a romantic connection. She serves as a sort of conduit between Beowulf and Grendel, leveling the playing field between them.
Grendel is splendidly brought to heartbreaking life by Iceland's biggest Star, Ingvar Sigurdsson. Interestingly, his 4-year-old son makes a very credible acting debut as the young Grendel, orphaned in no uncertain terms at the start of the movie and laying the foundation for the carnage to come. Harking more to Gardner's Grendel than the unremittingly bloodthirsty troll of the original poem, Mr. Sigurdsson manages to express both the innocence and tragedy of Grendel with gusto, exploring his un-human characteristics without judgment. It is a tribute to his talent that rather than being horrified by a scene in which we see Grendel bowling with victims' severed heads, we identify with the spirit of pure Joy breaking through a monster's lonely existence.
Providing a context for the Hero/Monster mythos is a superb cast of supporting characters. Stellan Skarsgard is the alcoholic Danish king Hrothgar, not only unwilling to accept responsibility for the scourge of Grendel, but not even wanting to consider "why a f***ing troll does what a f***ing troll does." Eddie Marsden plays the foaming-at-the-mouth crazed Irish Catholic priest, Brendan, heralding the advent of Christianity and the desire of a people to unburden themselves of any and all accountability for their actions. And Ronan Vibert embodies the equivalent of modern day mass media as the Bard, Thorkel, through whom the saga is transformed (over Beowulf's objections) into a revisionist history which does not bear close examination. As Martin Delaney notes as the young warrior, Thorfinn, what we are left with are "tales of sh*t." The old Beowulf is not gone. The tone of the original oral tradition is maintained by Berzins' strict adherence to Anglo-Saxon and Norse root words and an ongoing thread of bawdy humor against a relentless musical score rife with tribal drums. The comic relief serves, as in Shakespeare's tragedies, to lighten and make palatable the raw impact of some harsh realities revealed. But a new Beowulf & Grendel rises from the ashes. This blood and guts epic, with its undeniably spiritual undercurrent, balances swordplay with word play, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions in the bloody aftermath. The tag line, "Heads will roll!" refers not only to the blood-soaked battle scenes, but to the thought processes set in motion that will leave you re-evaluating concepts of and motives behind Love, Loyalty, and War long after you leave the theater.