March 17, 2008


Beowulf is one of the most ancient poems that we have. It is the Illiad of English verse- we know little about when it was written or how it was put together. Putting it on the screen was always going to be difficult- the sentiment and thought of the Saxon ages of England are not easy to recover without caricature- skilled hands and minds are needed for the task. Unfortunately skilled hands and minds did not put together this recent effort. It is sad that the director thinks that the original poem is 'boring'- that tells you something about his abilities to direct this film. You can see the marks of exertion: the script is filled with references to the coming of Christianity and sentimental analyses of sexual passion and the way that it corrupts men. Indeed if anything this is a replacement of the complicated morality of the original- with a simple equation between promiscuity and the beggining of moral turpitude.

The film's glossiness is part of its attempt to appeal- but that glossiness fails. The film was developed by using new digital techniques and the actors here do not appear, only their images constructed from software. It does not really work. For this viewer, the animation did not work. I was not terrified by Grendel but amused, not titillated by Grendel's mother but bored. The animation lessened the power of the story and made the point that the film makers were attempting to make less powerful than it should have been. As plenty of other film reviewers have commented the film contains adult material- sex and violence abound- and yet the visual style is one that only works with children and teenagers. In that sense the style and the story contradict, in order to take the first seriously, you have to be of an age where you cannot absorb the second.

Passing on to the subject of the story. What we have here is the repeated efforts of heroes to liberate their world from monsters- Grendel, Grendel's mother and a dragon all crop up- but they are undermined always by their desire for the seductive mother. Beowulf from the moment he enters the story is a ladies man, eyeing up a young queen (wife to the King who needs his help) and eventually he sleeps with Grendel's mother to create a new monster the dragon. We learn that in this, Beowulf merely immitates the actions of Hrothgar, the King who needed his help, who too slept with Grendel's mother and fathered Grendel. This story suggests two things- that the sexual wiles of women are irresistable and always evil and that as Beowulf says it is not Grendel who is a monster but we humans who are monsters.

Both are very unrealistic hooks to hang a story from- and neither it should be noted are in the original. The succubus is an old idea- but in an age of equality and comradeship between men and women a rather old fashioned idea- its not unusual of course for men to do foolish things because of sex but in this film, sexual desire is almost solely a bad thing and in life of course it isn't. Life is more complicated than that. Furthermore in this film political power creates monsters- whereas actually in reality, monsters were always the creation not of political power but of lawlessness. That is true both of Greek and Norse myth. Monsters live in the world of heroes- the world before the state- before a monopoly of force. Interestingly in this story of sons slaying fathers the Oedipal element is completely left out- the idea that the son could be a challenge to the father is cod psychology but probably too sophisticated for this film.

More interesting than the film's premises are its value as a social document about how we see the past. Christianity here is the post-heroic religion- the religion as Neitsche saw it- the religion of cowardice and forgiveness. To this is counterbalanced the ethic of the hero and the pagan- its an ethic that many feel nostalgic for, especially on the political right and explains for example the return of many conservatives to the classical world for inspiration. This film is a testament to that sense of unease that we still seem to have with the world that we have- the civilised world, the legal world. Its an interesting phenomenon and one that deserves thinking about- but definitely this interpretation of Beowulf is contrary to Lewis and Tolkein's myths- they sought to reinforce Christianity and law, this seeks to undermine it.

A story with bad premises need not be a bad story- it doesn't help but neither is it an insuperable barrier. The problem with Beowulf though is that the film is really not much more than the sum of its special affects (cartoonish special effects) which light up the sky. The dialogue is too stilted and replaces the beauty of the original with a sort of stilted modernism. The voices work in many cases- Sir Anthony Hopkins does for example his usual turn so does Ray Winstone- but nowhere is there any special work. This is grunting gruffness by numbers. Its worth it if you like seeing cartoon dragons have their guts sliced open or cartoon sexiness- but I'm not sure that that is a major qualification for a film.

The long and the short of it is that this is a film in which Beowulf wrestles, monsters get biffed and Angelina Jolie gets naked (as a cartoon!). There isn't much more than that to this film.


Ashok said...

Just wanted to say hi, and thank you for the comments especially - things are busy here, and I wish I were way more productive, but I'll be putting up dissertation samplings up soon, I hope.

Matthew Sinclair said...

It's good fun if you see it at the iMax in 3D (like I did). Having it entirely rendered in CG allows for cool bits with monsters flying at you. I assume you saw it on the DVD, which I imagine would be lame.

In short, depends where you watch it.

Gracchi said...

Yeah I agree Matt the Imax may well have altered it a lot. I did see it on a DVD and it probably wasn't the best way to see it it was sent to me as a review copy however so I reviewed it. However I see the point Matt and agree with it.