Dr Richard North on 'Beowulf'
Dr Richard North, a professor of English at UCL and an expert on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf', surveys the work's latest voyage to the big screen
However you read it, ‘Beowulf’ is a complex poem. Bergman or Tarkovsky could have filmed it closely. Now Robert Zemeckis has had a go, and with Roger Avary, the co-writer of ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994), at his side, there might be more to this ‘Beowulf’ than motley entertainment.
‘Beowulf’ is a poem of 3,182 lines in Old English, that I believe was composed in Leicester in 826-27 (others claim a slightly earlier date). It tells two stories of Beowulf the monster-slayer, one as a young hero in Denmark when he kills the cannibal Grendel and later Grendel’s mother, and the other as an old king in Geatland when he dies killing a dragon.
The achievement of the new film by Zemeckis is to make these two stories one. The poem starts with King Hrothgar and his new hall, Heorot, which Grendel haunts for 12 years until Beowulf tears off his arm. The Danes celebrate, until attacked the following night by Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf goes after her, diving into her underwater cave, but deadlier than the male, she jumps him and it is only with God’s aid, plus one of her weapons, that Beowulf kills her. Fifty years pass and Beowulf, now an old king, duels with a dragon that has set his country alight in revenge for the theft of a golden cup from its hoard. Burned and wounded, Beowulf kills the dragon with the help of a young kinsman called Wiglaf. His last command is to rob the hoard, which, though he doesn’t know it, has a curse that may send him to hell. The question is: is the dying Beowulf tempted by this gold, or does he secretly, as Hrothgar once advised him, reject it all for a heavenly reward?
There are mistakes in the film: the Christians are in Denmark too early (507 AD?) and the armour ranges from Celtic swords to Roman breastplates out of eighteenth-century frescos. But there is also a minstrel reciting lines 809-19 in the original and the Grendels converse in broken Old English. Zemeckis offers his own temptation theme: not gold versus heaven, but sex versus reason.
Sex will sell the film, and when Beowulf (Ray Winstone) gives both his genes and the golden cup to Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie), we have a kind of Faustian exchange for the rule of Denmark. Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) once made love to her, begetting Grendel, a mutant; Beowulf follows suit, begetting the dragon, destined to spew napalm when a thief steals back the cup; will King Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) fall for her too? What monster will his loins provide?
Unlike ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994), also directed by Zemeckis, this film goes large on testosterone. Heorot has already been established as a Valhalla of valkyrie availability by the time Beowulf and friends arrive. A bit differently from his character in the poem, Hrothgar is first seen in a toga like a Pappasilenos, chairlifted out of an orgy, while Queen ‘Wealthow’ looks on. One of the nine sea-monsters Beowulf says he encountered was really an attractive mermaid, but fighting her was not what he had in mind. The Geats sing a sixth-century version of ‘Four and twenty virgins’. ‘Hondshew’, a married man and the only Geat destined to be eaten by Grendel, turns out to have earned his fate by trying (and failing) to seduce a Danish waitress. And Beowulf divests himself not only of sword but of mailcoat and leather drawers prior to combat with Grendel. His ‘third leg’ artfully concealed behind Wiglaf and assorted helmets, he fights Grendel using shouts and heavy chains. The next night he dreams of Hrothgar’s queen and the following day his sword melts into droplets when at last he meets Grendel’s mother, the vampy demon-in-chief.
Sexing up ‘Beowulf’ in this way might seem outrageous, a plot to make an Anglo-Saxonist’s lip curl even more than Angelina’s. But linking Grendel to the dragon through Jolie keeps the poem’s stories together. It has this advantage over its Grendel-based rivals: Graham Baker’s ‘Beowulf’ (1999), sci-fi with Christopher Lambert; John McTiernan’s ‘The 13th Warrior’ (1999), co-directed by Michael Crichton; and Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf & Grendel’ (2005), an adaptation of John Gardner’s novel ‘Grendel’. Filmed in Iceland, the last is the finest of all ‘Beowulf’ films, with Hrothgar as a recovering alcoholic and Grendel as a Neanderthal slowly forcing the hero, a soulful Gerard Butler, to question his role.
The success of these films, however, has been modest. Baker’s went almost straight to video, the Crichton project had disappointing box office and Sturla’s film appeared in the UK only when a petition exacted one cinema viewing off a DVD. Zemeckis’ film, in contrast, is financially ambitious. It has stars, effects, four formats including 3D and merchandising via a new ‘Beowulf’ videogame. There are some rousing drums, and Zemeckis has refined the motion-capture techniques he pioneered in ‘The Polar Express’ (2004). As in the ‘Shrek’ films, minor figures still bob about like marionettes when galloping on ponies or running in helmets, but there is no longer the dead-eye that afflicted the infants of Zemeckis’ Arctic Santa trip, while grown-ups now have facial close-ups with the wrinkles that, Jolie’s buff surface excepted, we expect from real people. The script is functional, but performances are worthy. If you want a priapic Hrothgar, Hopkins is your man, while John Malkovich is venomous as Unferth, Winstone does his trademark cockney growl even as a seven-foot Scando mercenary and Jolie does a tempting Grendel’s mother. Garish and over the top as it is, if this movie can make ‘Beowulf’ more widely known, any sex is welcome.
Richard North is editor (with Joe Allard) of ‘Beowulf & Other Stories’ and author of ‘The Origins of 'Beowulf’
‘Beowulf’ opens on November 16.
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