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Movies Review

Beowulf

By
Beowulf
Released on Friday, Nov 16 2007

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary
Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover
Running time: TBC mins
Certificate: 12A

The Old English tale of Beowulf is usually the reserve of grumpy university professors and unfortunate English Literature students. The 3,000 line poem about Viking warriors, dragons and beasts was considered by many to be too convoluted and incohesive to be adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster. However, clearly inspired by the popularity of Lord Of The Rings and the potential to thrill with performance-capture technology, Robert Zemeckis has brought the story to life by rounding off the plot's jaded edges and filling in the blanks with a heavy dosage of extreme violence and sexual tension.

Zemeckis' Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives from stormy seas with a bawdy team of warriors to save the Danish kingdom of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) from the violent attacks of the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). In order to save the kingdom and win the heart of Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), Beowulf tackles Grendel without weapons (or any clothes) and succeeds in tearing off the creature's arm. However, when Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) wreaks revenge by slaughtering all but one of the warrior's army while he sleeps, Beowulf is forced to confront her to rid the land of its final monster.

Beowulf is a sleek and thrilling adaptation that will no doubt enrage traditionalists as it veers and twists the classic poem's plot for its own dramatic ends. To glue together the original story's three mini-tales (Beowulf fights monster, Beowulf fights monster's mother, Beowulf fights dragon), writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have introduced a web of affairs, seduction and illegitimate children of the quantity you'd usually find on the average Jeremy Kyle show, which certainly brings the film a contemporary edge.

Jolie's appearance as a sultry seductress that woos Beowulf will certainly have anyone who's had the misfortune of studying the original text scratching their heads. You probably won't remember the bit in the poem where an Angelina-shaped creature appears from the water, covered in gold and completely starkers. It will have English teachers thanking their lucky stars as a whole generation of young red-blooded males suddenly find a new interest in the book. Jolie oozes sex on the screen and is entirely convincing as the vampish villain. Her character's ability to curse generations of kings by bedding them and giving birth to their offspring successfully holds the original tale's disjointed narrative plot together.

Certain elements of the movie don't quite gel and the actors' varying accents create more audience guffaws rather than add any linguistic authenticity. Winstone's gruff and defiant Beowulf occasionally slips into broad cockney, meaning you're left grinning and giggling when you should be pinned to the back of your seat. For large parts of the movie you expect his belligerent grunts of "I am Beowulf" to be followed by the line: "And I support West Ham United, guv'nor!"

There are some impressive performances from the cast that are hidden behind the technology and fancy animation. Hopkins' King Hrothgar is a fantastic depiction of a once-great warrior, resigned to life as a debauched and lecherous drunk, while the cowardly and hopeless Unferth (John Malkovich) brings some genuine warmth and humour to this dark and brooding epic. Robin Wright Penn is the other standout, putting in a sterling performance as Queen Wealthow, who copes with two disloyal husbands and rampaging monsters without resorting to the stereotypically wimpish damsel in distress. Zemeckis' keenness to emphasise the frailties of the alpha-males in the movie and correspondingly point towards the strengths of the bit-part females is one of the more interesting takes on the text.

The graphic violence and visual delights provided by the digitally-enhanced live action is slightly problematic. The young audience that would gain the most from the rollercoaster ride of explosive action and zooming camera shots are probably not suited to the more gruesome and scarier moments from the film. The creation of Grendel for instance is so splendidly awful - all gangly limbs, bulging eyeballs and dripping, gooey exterior - that you'll find yourself covering you eyes for the majority of his scenes.

While the movie is undoubtedly visually stunning and ambitious in its scope, the film is repeatedly held back by the frailties of the original text. Although Zemeckis and Winstone do their best to create a complex and flawed hero out of Beowulf by highlighting his bravado and illustrating his tendency for exaggeration through flashback sequences, they are let down by what is ultimately a very simplistic pre-medieval tale of heroism and monster-slaying. It's a superb action flick that will have you wide-eyed in awe at its effects, just don't go expecting any kind of literary discussion.

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