Beowulf (2007) dir. Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn
I have to say I’m still not a fan of Zemeckis’ motion capture innovations. At times it’s photorealistic, and at other moments it looks like “Shrek”. With my brain shifting back and forth between live action and CG animation, it causes a distraction from the story and action.
Putting the technical aside, “Beowulf” is a straightforward adventure story based on the Danish story written many centuries ago. I don’t know if Robert Zemeckis’ version adheres to the Danish origins, but I don’t really care. Is it “300” – No. Is it “Braveheart” – No. Does it entertain? Yes – at times.
Somewhere around 400AD the kingdom of Denmark is ruled by King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). When his nemesis Grendel (Crispin Glover), an ungodly ugly beast from the mountains, attacks his village he summons the best warrior of the land to slay the beast. Heeding the call is Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a born soldier with a legendary reputation for demon-slaying. He accepts the task of killing Grendel, but little does he realize that there’s a higher power even more devious that pulls the strings. Beowulf’s heroism is challenged when he faces against the computer-enhanced Angelina Jolie – wow! Beowulf sells his soul to the demon in exchange for Hrothgar’s kingdom –a decision which will haunt him during his reign until he can confront the beast once again and redeem himself.
Other then telling an adventure story with some quality limb-hacking and some CG nudity, “Beowulf” strength is it’s de-mythologizing the notion of the classic ‘hero’. Genre films like “300” and “Braveheart” piggyback on the archetypes created by stories like “Beowulf” and Homer’s “The Odyssey”. So in going to back the original source, writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary are smart to make their hero as flawed, selfish, and unsure as possible.
When Beowulf is introduced to us, we see in flashback, an account of his slaying of a dragon-beast. What we see is a triumphant demon-slaying, with Beowulf slicing the beast open from within its belly and emerging heroically through his eye. The King’s advisor Unferth (John Malkovich) is suspect of Beowolf’s tall tales – but at this point in the story Beowulf is the hero, and we only see Unferth as the jealous antagonist. But as the story moves forward, the rust in Beowulf’s armour shows, revealing an ordinary man with weaknesses and insecurities like everyone else. In the second half of the film, with the legend already in progress “Beowulf”, now with responsibilities of a King, endeavours to atone for his sins.
Other than the character arc of Beowulf, the plotting and events in the story are minimal. The first half builds up to Beowulf’s confrontation with Grendel’s mother. There’s a jump forward in time, directly to the return of Grendel’s mother. Unfortunately what is skipped is what should have been the second act of the film, when we get to see the downfall of Beowulf, setting up his redemption in the third act.
In terms of adventure and action, “Beowulf” is surprisingly lacking. About two thirds of the film is contained inside the King’s dank and fire-lit banquet hall. And we never get the 'spectacle' this story deserves. With the infinite size of canvas Zemeckis has at his disposal he keeps the action story small and contained, unfortunately to the detriment of the film.