Movie review: “Beowulf”

We watched the 2007 movie Beowulf tonight. You know, the one in which Angelina Jolie emerges from the swamp in a skin-tight golden suit?

I remember a number of years ago when one of our lecturers in English literature read the class a couple of extracts of this. He explained that it was an Old English heroic epic poem, which dates back to somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. He tried his best to make it sound exciting by acting out the accents and trying to bring the characters to life, but I didn’t really appreciate the effort at the time.

But when the DVD appeared on the shelf, I thought I’d give it a try. And it didn’t take much persuading of my significant other, because the cover looked so dark and dramatic – a powerfully muscled man in armour clasping a sword: “I will KILL your Monster!” (If it had been one of E M Forster’s or Jane Austen’s classic novels, I might have had to be more persuasive and to do my usual bartering: “How about we watch that sci-fi thriller tonight, and next time we take out this Merchant Ivory production?”)

Briefly, Beowulf is the story of a big strong man called … well… Beowulf, a somewhat ambivalent and thus flawed hero who battles against three monsters: the first is called Grendel, and it is a deformed creature with hypersensitive ears and a strangely exposed skeleton; the second is its mother (of all things), a  powerful shapeshifting water demon without a name (played by Angelina with her customary seductive pout and come-hither look); and the third is a Golden Man who transforms into a fire-spewing dragon.

As this mythical story is appropriately set in Denmark, there are many shots of an icy landscape in the dead of winter, with the wind howling through barren trees and across muddy moors. Suitable backdrop for truly impressive battles with frightening monsters. I sometimes wonder why the people made up these stories in the old days – surely the world was a scary enough place then already, without inventing all these horrific and brutally violent creatures? Didn’t they give children nightmares?

When the movie began, it took me a couple of minutes to realise that something was a bit wrong: although the actual actors were recognisable, the textures of their faces were just too smooth, their clothes fell a bit awkwardly, their eyes were not sparkling enough, and their movements were just a little artificial… I thought at first that it was all CGI (computer-generated imagery), but it wasn’t. I only found out afterwards that it had been shot as performance capture or motion capture (or mocap!). Here’s a little more info about how it was used to create “Beowulf”.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, as it’s a really awesome story. You can read a really nice summary of the complicated plot here. If you want to read a summary of the original epic poem to study the differences between the movie and the poem, click here. And if you are really passionate about Old English literature, you can even get the text of the original classic poem here – read out aloud nogal!

By the way, if you’re really keen on having some of the classics read out to you (such as Shakespeare, Austen, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Bronte, Conrad, Melville, Twain, and even Joyce’s Ulysses, although that one isn’t read!) or to download them in PDF format, check out this general link to the same website.

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For other movies we’ve watched in May, click on:

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