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Beowulf

Beowulf

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES (2-DISC): Reading Between The Lines: The Making of Beowulf; The Origins of Beowulf; Beowulf’s Beast of Burden; Art of Beowulf; Deleted Scenes.

ROBERT Zemeckis insists that performance/motion capture technology was the only way to bring his vision for Beowulf to the big screen. But while there’s plenty to admire in this epic, especially in 3D format, there’s still something uneasy about watching a process that’s often been dubbed as “the future of cinema” take its next steps forward.

Peter Jackson, for instance, proved that the supposedly impossible can be achievable with his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong and struck the perfect balance between acting and effects.

Zemeckis dazzles with Beowulf but he doesn’t really connect on an emotional level and one suspects that much of this has to do with the technology itself.

For the record, the film takes place in 6th Century Denmark as the domain of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) falls under attack from the hideously deformed demon Grendel (Crispin Glover).

Enter heroic Geat warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who vows to slay the demon in return for some of Hrothgar’s riches. In the course of completing his mission, however, Beowulf encounters Grendel’s powerful and seductive mother (Angelina Jolie) and makes decisions that will ultimately shape his destiny.

The story of Beowulf is based on a single poem that’s 3,000 lines in length and which is widely acknowledged to have contributed to the inspiration behind JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.

Indeed, Tolkien’s own reassessment of the poem in his 1936 essay Beowulf: The Monster & The Critics helped to ensure that it continues to be widely read and studied in schools.

It’s all the more disappointing, therefore, that the film fails to register as strongly as Jackson’s take on Tolkien. The best way to see it is undoubtedly in 3D, when the effects really do come to life during the exciting set pieces. But at other points they prove a distraction that undermines the power of the narrative.

Too much time is spent [by the viewer] looking at a buff, photo-real Ray Winstone as Beowulf, or examining the skin texture and vitality of Anthony Hopkins’ Hrothgar, while there’s a curious fascination with nudity and violence [on the part of Zemeckis] that’s certain to place the lenient 12A certificate under scrutiny.

This certainly doesn’t look or feel like a children’s movie, especially during scenes involving characters being ripped apart by demons or Beowulf wrestling naked with Grendel.

Likewise, the complexity of the story requires a lot of patience and the film does tend to drag its heels during the middle section. Younger viewers will undoubtedly be shuffling in their seats if they haven’t already fled in fear.

Of the performances, Ray Winstone provides complexity to the flawed hero Beowulf, Brendan Gleeson shines as his loyal colleague Wiglaf and Angelina Jolie vamps it up as Grendel’s mother. But the role of Unferth feels like a complete waste of John Malkovich’s talents and Robin Wright Penn and Alison Lohman also feel under-used and poorly written.

Given that performance capture is still very much in its infancy stage, some of the background effects also pale by comparison to the picture’s very best work.

So while it would be easy to simply sit back and hail the advances in technology when they’re flying (almost literally) right out at you, there’s still that nagging sense that progress isn’t always for the better.

Beowulf, for all its admirable intent, ultimately leaves you pining for a more traditional approach, while Zemeckis still has his work cut out to truly impress within the medium.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 1hr 54mins
UK DVD Release: March 17, 2008