“I Wiw Kiw Your Monstah.”
Beowulf: movie of the century? I think so. It’s like a parade of fun and adventure and an incredibly ugly monster, coupled with an incredibly Angelina Jolie-like Angelina Jolie in gold body paint. Then there’s a dragon. It’s kind of like how 300 might have been if 300 was any good. It’s the sort of movie that you despair of people thinking that Beowulf himself is legitimately “badass”. It’s essentially a movie that doesn’t want you to take it too seriously, because that’s not the great oral tradition: the great oral tradition is heart ripping, arbitrary stone falling action!
Denmark. Back in the day. King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins)’s hall of feasting is hit by a hideous monster: Grendel (Crispin Glover). The great and mighty hero, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) comes from across the sea to rip off Grendel’s arm, and to express an interest in Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). On his way to visit Grendel’s mother, Angelina Jolie, things go slightly awry … many years later, Beowulf is strangely dissatisfied.
I’ve yet to meet a person who really enjoyed Beowulf. This is something that I don’t understand, because it’s a rollicking adventure. This is one movie where the spectacle isn’t really masking anything; I’m totally convinced that when stories get passed down, they should be entertaining. We can see that Beowulf himself has his own oral style, demonstrated when he tells the enchanting tale of a swimming race between himself and Brecca, interrupted as it was by sea monsters (“BEOWULLLFFFFFF!”). So when Beowulf strips himself naked because Grendel has no armour and no weapon, and then a series of arms and candles act to hide his “nakedness”, it’s a different sort of “fuck yeah!” to the “fuck yeah!” that lots of people seem to go to the movies to see. This movie may be the brand of “fuck yeah” tailored to me and Roger Ebert.
I think the best way to describe Beowulf is that it’s the anti-300. 300 was ridiculous, but it was totally earnest in a “Spartans are totally hardcore badass and not at all gay!”. Beowulf feels different. It feels like “I am attacking a dragon by throwing an axe at it, then hanging on to the rope I’d tied onto that axe for dear life!”
I guess it’s something that you have to “get”. Roger Avary said he was surprised that he got away with as much as he did in the writing of it. Despite the silliness there’s a lot of good, if not wholly subtle, subtexts, and Beowulf sees himself as a deeply flawed man. The quality of his relations with Wealthow becomes more interesting than simple glances, and Brendan Gleeson’s Wiglaf is also a delight. Angelina Jolie doesn’t seem naked at all, although one could understand how she would feel exposed – but all throughout, I kept on expecting her to say “moose and squirrel”. That’s how she delivers her performance.
Visually it’s an interesting bag, with the characters not looking as soulless as they did in Robert Zemeckis’ previous effort, The Polar Express. Only Angelina Jolie looks entirely like herself, albeit with golden skin and prehensile hair, and Anthony Hopkins comes close. The rest of the characters look like CG efforts, but that’s no great shame. My comrade Arthur said that it looked like Oblivion, which I suppose would be true were Oblivion not in reality a pretty hideous game (graphical power is no match for actual aesthetics, you see). To be honest, it’s actually a pretty bland looking film. Grendel is hideous and, while this is admittedly the point, that makes him hard to look at. Important action sequences are impressive, but otherwise this looks like a lot of effort to look incredibly mundane. The CG bit is probably going to put off a lot of people, and I’ll admit that I can’t strictly see the point, but this is not a terrible way to make a film.
Beowulf is essentially a laughable film, but in a good and deliberate way. It’s fun to watch, even if you can’t put it too close to analysis. I’ll admit that I can’t say much about the epic storytelling tradition to which it belongs, but heck, it’s good enough for me.
I’m really looking forward to the sequel, Beowulf, Too!