Monday, February 4, 2008

Movie Review: Beowulf

Despite taking substantial liberties with the source material, I've found the most recent adaptation of Beowulf to be one of the more thematically faithful interpretations.

Let's start with general comments first: the CGI is very impressive, closer to reality than anything I've seen before. At first, I was curious as to why the creators would bother with CGI, given how closely the characters resemble their actors... but the story of Beowulf is, at its core, a fantasy, and a world rendered entirely in CGI (as opposed to the sort of CGI/live-action hybridization you'd find in, say, the later Star Wars films) creates a seamless visual experience, where men and women are as real as the giants, dragons and demons that menace them. The voice-acting is also superb across the board, from Ray Winstone's bellowing, blustering Beowulf to Anthony Hopkins' weakened, decadent Hrothgar. The action sequences are flawless and truly epic in scale.

Neil Gaiman's rewrite of the epic poem makes some intriguing alterations, and yet I find that the story's heart remains unchanged: it's still pride and hubris that leads to Beowulf's downfall, in that pride leads him to make a bargain that ultimately destroys him. Gaiman's version also turns the story into a cyclical narrative, as we learn that Hrothgar has made a similar compromise in his past, and Wiglaf (Beowulf's successor) is tempted to do the same as well. Much like the poem, there's a comment here on the human condition as it existed in the pre-Christian warrior culture of the fifth century: at what point do the supreme values of honor and glory become too costly to maintain?

A key element of the film is humanization, or rather, a reduction of absolutes and ideals. The movie's Beowulf is not the perfect, archetypal warrior-king-hero that he was in the poem (where his only true flaw was growing old). In fact, one layer of complexity the film introduces has to do with The Legend of Beowulf versus the man himself, and it turns out there's a bit of a gap there: we, the audience, are privy to information that contradicts Beowulf's exaggerated tales of his own heroism. He becomes an unreliable protagonist, where in the poem you never really had reason to doubt what was said about his battles and his character.

Similarly, Grendel is more than just a vile hellspawn. In the film, he is depicted as a childlike creature, his attacks on Heorot a response to the physical pain the Danes cause him. I'm on the fence about this: on the one hand, Western literature has long since made the move from moral motivation to psychological motivation, so asking us to sympathize with Grendel, even to a slight extent, is understandable. On the other hand, this drains Grendel of his "evil" context, in the sense that he's no longer a foil for Beowulf. Of course, that shift moves Grendel's mother up the hierarchy and makes her the true villain of the story, rather than just another Monster of the Week as she appears in the poem, so that's a step up.

On a final note, here's something I found particularly clever: Crispin Glover, as Grendel, speaks Old English while his mother (Angelina Jolie) has a Slavic accent. Language is used not just to separate the demons from humanity but to separate Grendel and his mother as well. Grendel's speech pattern is archaic, but still native to the land he's in; his mother comes from Somewhere Else, a place that's altogether foreign. And it's little touches like that which elevate a pleasant action-fantasy film into something more.