Every so often, through a strange confluence of circumstances, filmmakers
glom onto a topic and suddenly there are several movies on that same theme. As we
approach the middle of the first decade in the 21st Century, there are no less than
three feature films in various stages adapted from the Old English epic poem known
as
"Beowulf."  The first to reach cineplexes is BEOWULF & GRENDEL, directed by
Sturla Gunnarsson and scripted by Andrew Rai Berzins.

      In the production notes, Berzins explains that he has been interested in turning
this story into a movie since he was a kid and he began in earnest to work on the
script in the 1990s. With the Icelandic-born, Canadian-based Gunnarsson on board,
the project began to take shape. What the writer and director attempt to do is mine
the tale for its humanity. A great deal of the fanciful and the supernatural elements are
downplayed. Instead, the story takes on different meanings. On one level, it can be
read as a tale of a wrongful military intervention, one rushed into headlong for what
appeared to be the right reasons but on deeper examination flow from the lies of a
despot.

       BEOWULF & GRENDEL begins with a prologue that explains the story and,
as such, drains some of the dramatic potential from the tale. Instead of holding the
information back for a big reveal, at the outset the audience sees a band of
horseback riding marauders attack a giant troll and kill him with the troll's young son
looking on. The leader of the band -- Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård) -- spares the child
and later comes to regret his decision. The child, of course, grows into Grendel
(Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) who seeks revenge against Hrothgar and his men,
visiting them in the night and attacking them.

      Hrothgar sends across the sea to Geatland and asks that area's great warrior
Beowulf (Gerard Butler) to come to his rescue. Initially agreeing to support Hrothgar,
Beowulf comes to discover that things aren't quite as clear-cut black and white as
he has been led to believe. With the support of a local witch (Sarah Polley), he
makes contact with the troll. After one of his men descrates a shrine the troll
has created to his dead father, Grendel seeks only revenge on that one man.
Beowulf comes to recognize that the troll may have been wronged and may
actually have a good reason for his rampage.

Mixed in with these proceedings are the arrival of a Christian missionary,
Brendan (Eddie Marsan), who attempts to convert anyone interested -- including
Hrothgar who decides to cover all bases with various "gods."

      Gunnarsson utilizes the Icelandic locations in a terrific and organic manner that
lend a veracity to the proceedings. Polley has a very modern sensibility, but that
actually plays to her character, an outcast because she knows the future. Skarsgård
is appropriately dissolute and weak as the king. Sigurdsson manages to evoke
sympathy for Grendel, although he is limited to grunts and unintelligible dialogue.
After a dismal turn on the small screen as Atilla the Hun and a misguided
performance in the title role as
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Gerard Butler
at last has found a role that allows him to demonstrate his charisma and dramatic
chops.        

      While this attempt to turn the classic poem into a feature has several things in its
favor, it does falter a bit when introducing a supernatural element. A major character
isn't clearly explained and it seems presumed that the viewer is familiar with the source
material. I figured out what was going on, but I know more than a few who were a tad
confused.  Overall, the filmmakers perhaps should be commended for eschewing CGI
and trying to make a flesh-and-blood tale. It's an admirable effort if a somewhat
disappointing one.


                                        
Rating:                        C +
                                        
MPAA Rating:            R for violence, language and some
                                                                                       sexuality
                                       
 Running time:            103 mins.
Beowulf & Grendel
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.