Oh, do I love this movie more than I ever could have imagined. I missed Beowulf & Grendel during the 30 seconds it was playing on big screens here in NYC last summer, and I’ve been waiting for the DVD with a mix of hope and dread — hope that this Canadian/U.K./Icelandic project would be untainted by Hollywood bombast, and dread that it wouldn’t be. (This film is not, by the way, to be confused with Beowulf, coming November 2007 from screenwriter Neil Gaiman and director Robert Zemeckis, a joint production of the sovereign nations of Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, and Paramount; if not for the involvement of Gaiman, I’d be dreading that one 100 percent.)
If you’re looking for sword-and-scorery nonsense or even the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings, then you’re in for as big a shock as I was. The only hints of the supernatural in this grounded, even earthy tale are those that you might expect medieval minds to misinterpret out of the natural world: Is Selma, the local “witch” (a clever Sarah Polley: Dawn of the Dead) really endowed with a magical seeing, or is she merely insightful and a little odd? Is Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) actually the “troll” the Vikings deem him, or is he merely a bit of a mutant, or maybe, as some interpretations of the classic saga would have it, how prescientific peoples would construe a leftover Neanderthal?
I hesitate to call the characters here “unsophisticated,” for they are not — quite the contrary. The thrilling beauty of this reading of Beowulf is that it makes them feel modern — not “modern” in that they are like 21st-century people plopped down in dark-ages Scandinavia, but modern in the sense that everyone throughout history has believed him- or herself to be a modern person, and has been right. These people live in the real world, not in a fable and not in a history book. In fact, our “hero” here — Beowulf, a sort of hired gun brought in to rid a Viking king (Stellan Skarsgård: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) of the menace of Grendel — is all too aware of the exaggerated stories surrounding his exploits, and he’s none too happy about how they steal his humanity from him. Perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of this entirely gripping film is Scottish actor Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) as Beowulf, in an unfussy but powerful performance, the kind that he’s never been allowed to give us in a Hollywood film. Andrew Rai Berzins’s script strips the myth away from the ancient story to find the man underneath, but it’s Butler who infuses the character’s suspicions about the job he’s been asked to do — he’s not sure Grendel isn’t right to be pissed at the king — with a weary resignation and later even regret. You can’t exactly call Butler’s Beowulf a reluctant hero, but he is one reluctant to see his heroism put to an unjust use.
This isn’t an action movie — though there are several extraordinary violent and graphic scenes of Grendel’s attacks on the Vikings. It’s a smart, provocative consideration of the power of politics and pop culture, not as we know them today, but as they existed in a medival world of isolated villages, despotic local kings, and stories told round a fire. It’s nothing I was expecting, and now it’s something I can’t get enough of as I’m compelled to watch the film again and again.
John McTiernan’s criminally underappreciated The 13th Warrior is the perfect complement to Beowulf & Grendel. A looser retelling of the same ancient saga, it is the action movie in its purest form, telling its story in pared-down, bare-necessity visuals. Which isn’t to say that this tale is nothing but spectacle — not at all. The story an Arabic warrior-scholar (Antonio Banderas: Take the Lead) who journeys with “Northmen” from his desert sands to their distant icy homeland to battle the mysterious creatures attacking their village is a compelling and emotional one that speaks of honor, culture clash, and love. But instead of revealing itself through words spoken, it comes in gestures big and small between individuals and between entire peoples, from a barely noticed clasping of hands to battlefield tactics designed to intimidate an army, all carefully and cleverly observed. [buy the DVD at Amazon]