Background: English literature students have long been tortured by educators with obscure, nearly indecipherable stories written hundreds of years ago; finding themselves expected to play historical sleuths in a day and age when people forget what happened a few days ago, never mind the details of stuff long lost to the ages. One tale in particular comes to mind as such a fiendish means of torture, the story of Beowulf; an epic poem crafted from verbal versions that were altered numerous times before someone set quill to parchment about a thousand years ago. The tale of a hero battling great monsters and surviving is significant in many ways, both from how it evolved to the way it is structured to what it says of our ancestors, though it has never been satisfactorily handled by movie makers (a CGI-laden version came out to theatres a few days ago). Well, a few years ago, director Sturla Gunnarsson set out on an epic journey too; filming a low budget version of the movie in an attempt to remain true to the poem with some modernized twists in Beowulf & Grendel.
Movie: Beowulf & Grendel (Blu-Ray) is what I like to call a re-envisioned version of the classic tale, with hero Beowulf a pensive investigator of sorts and Grendel as more of a caveman than troll or demon. Beowulf was a legendary hero of the Geats; a tribe of people from what we would call Scandinavia and he traveled around righting wrongs with the permission of his king. Grendel was a monster with powerful fighting skills; the two characters destined to meet in combat. Making a long story short, Beowulf comes to assist King Hroogar (various spellings) when a monster goes on a killing spree inside a great mead hall (a community bar of sorts from the olden days). The reasons for the attacks are unclear in the poem but the movie shows his motivations to be strictly revenge for the killing of his father years prior. The land upon which the hall is built was the spot where the monster's father was killed and on the day it is finished, the monster breaks in and tears apart most of the warriors (who were asleep and/or drunk at the time).
As Beowulf investigates the matter, he comes across a witch named Selma, an ostracized woman who reportedly sees the future and knows the unknowable. The witch is fetching but ragged, telling Beowulf some of the background story on the monster's history; including the name Grendel. Rather than dismissing out of hand her words, Beowulf looks deeper into the matter and a terse conversation with the King leads the hero to understand how both parties are being forced into a battle they can't walk away from. Needless to say, Grendel's reluctance to give up the grudge seals his fate as Beowulf leads a pack of warriors to slay the beast, the outcome foretold long before the meeting. The rejoicing is short lived when another monster attacks the kingdom, sending Beowulf back into action to do what heroes do best though in a very short nod to this portion of the story. Sadly, the third part of the Beowulf legend was left alone for the recent CGI movie to handle, dragons tough to come up with on small budgets.
The original story of Beowulf has been subjected to all kinds of scrutiny, including the likelihood that the oldest surviving manuscript was tainted by later updates reflecting the spread of Christianity. Even so, the common themes of the poem and this movie version were similar enough that while I wouldn't skip a lesson on the real thing to see the movie, it did provide one man's look at the legend. The movie relies on an updated vocabulary ("Beowulf, it's a fucking troll!"), modernized to make it far easier for a modern audience to accept as well as ease of actors able to handle the material without endless retakes. If you're looking for historical accuracy; look elsewhere then as this flick will not suit your needs but it did offer some material of interest all the same. The acting in general was suitable enough for a non-fantasy version of the tale too, though the sex between two of the major characters was completely off kilter and reminiscent of Boorman's Excalibur.
The character of Beowulf was aptly played by Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard's King Hroogar, and Sarah Polley's Selma other decent performances. For me then, the liberties taken with Grendel were the killing point that weakened this one to a level of Rent It more than the modernized approach to Beowulf himself. The talking, mourning Grendel seemed out of place to me and I suspect the idea that this might be a "thinking man's Beowulf" compared to the current version will prove true to me in no time. It had some moments and while I found large portions of it reminding me of the literary attempts of myself and my classmates long ago (ie: really bad attempts) to understand the tale fully, I would suggest people give it a look all the same.
Picture: Beowulf & Grendel (Blu-Ray) was presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 as shot on 35 mm film, in color, and offered up here in a pleasing 1080p using the MPEG-4/AVC codec. The movie was shot in Iceland to give it the kind of sweeping look it needed to succeed, the backdrops proving to be breathtaking as a result. The look of the ocean, the hilly plains, and the mountainous ledges were all great settings for the movie, the fleshtones of the humans appearing to be very accurate too. The composition of the shots was nicely done too though there was some grain and slightly soft imagery to contend with. The resolution of the picture was good enough to make up individual links of chain mail on Beowulf's chest and clusters of grass on the mountainside too, but this was not a consistent factor to be certain. The bitrate of the movie was often in the mid to upper 20 Mbps though it dropped into the teens at times as well; no compression artifacts observed for those who care.
Sound: The audio of the movie came in two choices, the primary track being a 5.1 English track in PCM at 48 KHz and a bitrate of 4.6 Mbps or the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround in English with a bitrate about a tenth that. The PCM track was clear and crisp in most cases, the surrounds used on occasion and the bass thundering during rare moments of fighting more than anything else; the separation and surrounds fairly solid for such a low budget effort. In perhaps a few instances, the movement of the characters was tracked by the surround sound but it was definitely under utilized compared to some of the higher end projects of late. The score was haunting though and meshed well into the dialogue and sound effects to invoke an eerie mood for much of the movie, some scenes given substantially more attention in this regard as well.
Extras: The best extra was the audio commentary by director Sturla Gunnarsson, assistant director Wendy Ord, screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins, and costume/wardrobe handler Debra Hanson. I found the commentary to be revealing as to some of the decisions that went into making the movie, some of them would have been nice knowing before watching the movie in fact. There was a lot of technical talk going on as the commentators played up their field as part of the larger whole, as well as some of the anecdotes about how the movie got made. The limitations of the movie were addressed repeatedly too though it was pointed out that the ambitious nature of the project should have been insurmountable but for the way everyone pitched in together. The extras also included a trailer for the movie and a storyboard comparison via sketches; some nice artwork turned in for the movie overall.
Final Thoughts: Beowulf & Grendel (Blu-Ray) was an attempt to update the classic tale of heroes and monsters from a bygone era; on some levels succeeding better than others. The technical qualities of the blue ray format helped make this a better looking and sounding movie (to be sure) but ultimately the updating of certain elements also seemed to cater to the LCD aspect of modern movie making as well so you will want to rent this one before dropping the money for something to keep. The extras were fairly minimal but the acting by the majority of performers here was such that they did the best they could with what they had to work with; the language changes also impacting the story for me. In short, Beowulf & Grendel (Blu-Ray) might not be able to compete with the visual and auditory thrills of the latest version of the tale but it had more than a little charm you might find appealing too.