I'm a sucker for obscure 8th Century (or so) Old English poetry, so when I saw that Beowulf and Grendel had been made, my inner lit geek trembled with equal parts trepidation and excitement. Danes and Geats fighting an evil troll, descended from Cain, the first murderer? Oh, yeah. And there's something to be said for manly Geat warriors strutting around in dead animal capes and carrying enormous swords. But what if they messed the story of Beowulf up? What if it was as bad as the godawful 1999 sci-fi version starring Christopher Lambert? Fortunately, in the hands of Sturla Gunnarsson, Beowulf and Grendel is a masterful film that fleshes out the decidedly one-sided epic poem, bringing Grendel to life with a humanity and warmth that adds layers of meaning to the old tale.
In John C. Gardner's novel Grendel, the author told the story of Beowulf from Grendel's point of view, going heavy on the darkish philosophy and making Grendel a nihilist who had deep conversations with dragons and came to view himself as the creator of the Danes. Scribe Andrew Rai Berzins, in penning the script for Beowulf and Grendel, takes a somewhat different tack, imbuing his Grendel with a deeper level of humanity and a reason for attacking the Danes. Beowulf (Gerard Butler, so perfectly cast he could have stepped right out of the ancient manuscript) is still heroic, but he is a hero with a conscience. Beowulf hears of the plight of the Danes, who have been plauged with attacks by a murderous troll. Distantly related to Danish King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård), and being the heroic and manly warrior that he is, Beowulf sets sail with 14 of his strongest men in his mighty longboat , intent upon quickly and heroically relieving the troll of his head.
When Beowulf and crew arrive in Daneland, however, it soon becomes apparent to Beowulf that all is not as it seems, and that he's not getting the full story from the king. King Hrothgar built a spectacular mead hall, but he and his people are unable to sleep in it or enjoy it properly, because the pesky troll keeps coming along and killing people. It's starting to demoralize King Hrothgar's people, and Hrothgar, himself once a mighty warrior, now finds himself entrenched in gloom, despair, and too much beer. Mysterious asides about the troll, Grendel, from the local witch, Selma (Sarah Polley), start to make Beowulf question just why exactly Grendel has targeted King Hrothgar's hall -- and why he only kills men, never women and children. When Beowulf realizes that Hrothgar has brought Grendel's wrath upon himself, he suddenly finds himself unsure of whether to fulfill his promise to kill the troll. Into all this chaos also comes Brendan the Celt (Eddie Marsan), a wandering priest who, when he stumbles across the situation with Grendel, decides he has been divinely called to bring faith in God to Hrothgar and his people.
This is a very complex story with a lot of characters, each with their own motivations. Hrothgar is bent under the weight of the destruction of his people, caused by an act he committed, and has evolved from proud warrior to drunken king in the space of a decade-and-a-half. Selma, the outsider who lives alone in a cave, is an 8th century feminist of sorts -- sexual, fiercely independent and proud -- and has a mysterious relationship with the troll. She can also supposedly see people's deaths, and so Beowulf hunts her out to learn both about Grendel and the predicted outcome of his quest. Grendel, although he doesn't speak the language of the Danes, is far more human than any of them would like to admit. He's taller than the Danes by a good foot or more, and he's not too pretty to look at, but what do you expect from someone whose mother was a sea hag and father was a troll? Yet, in spite of his rough exterior, Grendel's actions show him in many ways to be more intelligent, more human, than those who are trying to kill him. And Beowulf, of course, wants to be the highly sung hero, and yet when he realizes that the fault of the conflict may not lie all on Grendel's side (and does any conflict ever have only one side, after all?), he is torn between the honor of his promise to Hrothgar and doing what is morally right.
The film was beautifully shot in a remote part of Iceland, where the cast and crew endured unbelievably harsh conditions, including 160 MPH winds. I felt cold just watching the actors on-screen; the constant wind, especially, grows to serve as almost a character in and of itself. The makeup and effects harken back to pre-CGi days (remember those?); Gunnarsson wanted a CGI-free film, so designer Nick Dudman (who is no slouch, having also created the prosthetics for the Harry Potter films) had to do things the old-fashioned way -- with a lot of creativity and ingenuity. The starkly beautiful lcelandic landscape also serves to set tone, transporting us back to those long-ago days when men were warriors with monsters to slay and women were queens, drudges or whores. The hair, makeup and costume design lends a hand to setting the scene as well; Beowulf and his fellow Geats are warriors, yes, but they are vain warriors with handsome cloaks and jewelry braided into their beards. Grendal looks both fierce and human.
In addition, the acting is great. Skarsgård is perfectly cast as the moody, downtrodden king whose world has been upturned by the consequences of an act of cruelty mitigated by an act of kindness, and Butler is perfect as the intelligent, fierce warrior who revels in his heroism while nonetheless recognizing that what he does is just a job, and not a very glamorous one at that. Sigurðsson, who is apparently quite famous in his native Iceland, has perhaps the toughest job of the cast: He must bring to life and fill with humanity a character who has not one line of distinguishable dialogue. Oddly, the only weak link in the cast was Polley, who I normally like very much. In a film where everyone is speaking with accents, her decidedly Canadian voice was distracting. That's a minor quibble, though, because overall I really enjoyed the film. The adaptation of the tale adds texture to the ancient story that makes it more intriguing and meaninful, and there are some great touches of humor woven throughout to keep things from getting too heavy. Gunnarsson has made a film that would make the real Beowulf and Grendel, if they ever really existed, quite proud.