Revisited: Beowulf

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Beowulf (Ray Winstone) is a legendary Geatish warrior who travels to Denmark with his band of soldiers, including his best friend, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson). They travel in response to the call of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who needs a hero to slay a monster called Grendel (Crispin Glover), a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength. Grendel attacks Hrothgar’s mead hall, Heorot, whenever the Danes hold a celebration there, and Hrothgar was forced to close the hall. Upon arriving, Beowulf immediately becomes attracted to Hrothgar’s wife, Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn), who does not love her husband and reciprocates Beowulf’s interest.

Beowulf and his men celebrate in Heorot to lure Grendel out. When the beast does attack, Beowulf engages him unarmed and naked, determining that since Grendel fights with no weapon or armor he shall face him as equal. During the melee, Beowulf discovers that Grendel has hypersensitive hearing, which is why he interrupts Hrothgar’s celebrations – the noise they make is physically painful to him. After his eardrum is ruptured by Beowulf, he attempts to escape (having shrunk in size due to the injury). Beowulf manages to restrain Grendel and severs his arm using the door. In thanks for freeing his kingdom from the monster, Hrothgar gives Beowulf his golden drinking horn, which commemorates Hrothgar’s victory over the mighty dragon Fafnir.

Returning to his cave, the dying Grendel tells his mother what was done to him and by whom, and she swears revenge. She travels to Heorot in the night and slaughters Beowulf’s men while they were sleeping. Hrothgar tells both Beowulf and Wiglaf, who had been sleeping outside the hall during the attack, that it was the work of Grendel’s mother, the last of the Water Demons, who was thought by Hrothgar to have left the land. Beowulf and Wiglaf travel to the cave of Grendel’s mother to slay her. Only Beowulf enters the cave where he encounters Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie), who takes the form of a beautiful woman. She offers to make him the greatest king who ever lived if he will agree to give her a son to replace Grendel and let her keep the golden drinking horn. Beowulf agrees to the deal and returns, claiming to have killed her. Hrothgar, however, realizes the truth after hearing Beowulf describe her as a “hag” and a “witch.” He tells Beowulf indirectly that, much like Beowulf, he was also seduced by Grendel’s mother; Grendel was the result of their tryst. Hrothgar names Beowulf his successor as king, much to the dismay of his royal advisor, Unferth (John Malkovich), who was hoping to take the throne. Hrothgar then commits suicide by jumping from the castle parapet onto the beach below. A wave momentarily engulfs Hrothgar’s body, there is a golden flash underwater, and the body is gone.

Years later, the elderly Beowulf is married to Wealtheow. Over the years they had grown apart, husband and wife in name alone. Beowulf takes a mistress, Ursula (Alison Lohman) but his tryst with Grendel’s mother has left him sterile. One day, Unferth’s slave Cain (Dominic Keating) finds the golden drinking horn in a swamp near Grendel’s cave and brings it back to the kingdom. That night, a nearby village is destroyed by a dragon, which leaves Unferth alive in order to deliver a message to King Beowulf: the dragon is Beowulf’s son born to Grendel’s mother. Removing the horn has voided the agreement between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, who has now sent their son, the dragon, to destroy his kingdom.

Beowulf and Wiglaf go to the cave once again and Beowulf goes into the cave alone. When Grendel’s mother appears, Beowulf gives her the golden horn to convince her to stop the attack. Grendel’s mother considers it too late for any kind of agreement. She releases the dragon to attack Beowulf’s kingdom again. Beowulf goes to great lengths to stop the monster, even severing his own arm, and ultimately kills the dragon by ripping its heart out. The dragon’s fall mortally wounds Beowulf, but he lives long enough to watch the carcass of the dragon transform into the humanoid body of his son before it is washed out to sea. Beowulf insists on speaking the truth about his affair with Grendel’s mother but Wiglaf insists on keeping Beowulf’s legacy intact. As the new king, Wiglaf gives Beowulf a Norse funeral and watches as Grendel’s mother appears and gives Beowulf a final kiss before his burning ship sinks into the sea. Wiglaf sees the golden horn in the sand while Grendel’s mother floats in the sea, looking at him seductively. The movie ends ambiguously with Wiglaf holding the horn and staring back at her.

REVIEW:

In high school and college, I was made to study the epic poem Beowulf. While I found it interesting, admittedly, I didn’t do too well in those units. It wasn’t until years later, when this film was released that I developed a real respect and understanding of the material. I almost wished I could go back and take those classes over again…almost.

What is this about?

Robert Zemeckis directs this film adaptation of the longest surviving Anglo-Saxon poem, an epic tale concerning a 6th-century Scandinavian warrior named Beowulf and his mission to slay the manlike ogre Grendel, a descendant of Cain.

What did I like?

Animation. Unlike other films that use this CGI-live action hybrid, the characters in this one actually look alive, as opposed to creepy dead behind the eyes creations of a mad scientist. When your characters actually look alive, then they can do so much more. You can show the pain and heartbreak of a betrayed queen, the lust of a young maiden for her king, the sensual glance of Grendel’s mother (a perfect rendering of Angelina Jolie, btw…circa the Tomb Raider days), etc. On top of all this, the action in this is done almost as well, if not better, than some of the stuff we see in live action today. Just watch the fight with Grendel or Beowulf’s tale of his battle with the sea monster and you’ll see all you need, trust me.

Score. Some of my favorite films are the epic adventures from the late 50s and 60s. Most of these films had two things in common. The genius stop-motion of Ray Herryhausen and brilliant scores, most notably would have to be Jason and the Argonauts. In that same vein, we have here an epic story that is more than worthy of an epic score that fits the tone and scope of what is happening, and that is exactly what our ears are treated to.

A hero’s entrance. Beowulf’s entrance is truly that of a hero. After the initial massacre at Heorot, cut to Beowulf on his ship. The guy is what you would expect him to look like, big, strong, etc. He jokes around with his friend, Wiglaf and then inspires his men to keep rowing, storm or not. While Beowulf didn’t enter the film with his sword a-blazin’, for lack of a better term, it is still a majestic entrance for our titular hero.

What didn’t I like?

Changes. If I’m not mistaken, there is no actual text of the original poem, so at this point, transcribers are changing all sorts of thing in this story. However, even with the changes they make, most things still stay the same. That is not the case with this film, though. Most of the changes I can live with, as they were done for film and time sake, such as Beowulf becoming king of Denmark, rather than his homeland. There are things that just aren’t right, though, such as Grendel’s mother attempting to seduce Wiglaf as the film ends, Unferth being a Christian, Grendel’s mother, etc. Ok, I have no problem with how they portrayed Grendel’s mother on-screen, just her character. HAHA! Seriously, though, these changes were a bit more than what was perhaps necessary, in my opinion.

Queen’s right. Queen Wealthow is a loyal mate to both her cheating husbands, Hrothgar and Beowulf. Hell, Beowulf does it twice, even if the first time is before they were married. This brings to question why she sticks around. A beautiful woman like that deserves better than to be cheated on over and over again.

Just keep swimming. The race that Beowulf has at sea is told through a flashback, but why? This is arguably one of the most beautifully animated and exciting scenes in the film and it is nothing but a flashback. Seems to me that this should have been given more of an actual sequence in the film, perhaps even use it as Beowulf’s entrance, since Unferth had apparently heard talk of the tale.

In theaters, I actually paid to see Beowulf in 3D *GASP* To this day, I have not regretted that decision. 8 years later it still stands as one of the best 3D films that I have seen in theaters, if not THE best. The story is captivating enough to keep audiences interested, and I doubt guys (and girls) will have issue with a naked and golden Angelina Jolie popping up now and then. Do I recommend this film? Yes, very much so. This is one of those films you need to see before you die!

5 out of 5 stars

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One Response to “Revisited: Beowulf”

  1. […] Beowulf. If you can believe it or not, there actually is a villain in this film. No, it isn’t the flood or some wild animal causing trouble, but rather some guy that is a descendent of Cain (he of Cain and Abel fame).  Like the Watchers, I believe he was added in to flesh out runtime and create conflict. That being said, Ray Winstone does a masterful job of keeping him just the right amount of insane. I do have issue with his voice. Every time he talked, I couldn’t help but see Beowulf […]

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