In “Beowulf & Grendel,” the first epic poem in the English language receives a rendition that’s about half as good and half as harsh as it needed to be. Icelandic-shot version of the legendary revenge saga is visually arresting and plausibly retrofitted for modern consumption, but lacks the savage bite that might have given the sixth century-set tale real impact. Semi-name cast and literary pedigree could boost the pic into modest specialized playoff, with better results likely in foreign and ancillary.
“Beowulf” was transcribed from its pre-existing oral form sometime between 700-1000 A.D. in an early English that is essentially impossible for lay people to read today. Tale tells of a Danish king who, having killed a fearsome troll, some years later recruits the help of the foreign warrior Beowulf to battle the vengeful son of the troll he slaughtered.
It’s a story of barbarism and brute force played out by uncivilized louts in a frigid land still more pagan than Christian. While many of its particulars are offputting, the yarn retains a fascination embodied by its elemental qualities and its reflection of the origins of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic-Scandinavian mythology.
In a prologue entitled “A Hate Is Born,” Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard), the king of Dane land, butchers a bothersome troll but spares his young son, an albinoish cretin who, against a spectacular backdrop of sheer cliffs, black beaches and crashing waves, chops off his dead father’s head and makes off with it.
Several years later, after the young troll, Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson), has begun exacting his revenge by killing most of the occupants of the king’s great hall, the drunken and depressed Hrothgar engages Beowulf and his small band of companions from Geatland (southern Sweden) to track down the elusive creature.
“This troll must be one tough prick!” a soldier exclaims in one of the script’s more comical attempts to give a contempo ring to the ancient story. More often, the approach is stolidly conventional, lacking most of all a kind of fierce primitivism that might have sent a primordial chill down the spines of viewers and characters alike.
Director Sturla Gunnarsson seems aware of the savagery intrinsic to the story, but is unable to mine it deeply, proving too genteel in the end to make a genuinely creepy or disturbing film. He is not, however, averse to injecting it with humor, as when the Danish king admits he’s heard of Christ but wonders if Jesus ever had to deal with a troll — or when, in an optimistic moment, the monarch proposes a toast “to the end of gloom!”
Butler cuts a somewhat more commanding figure here than he did as the woeful Phantom of the Opera, while Skarsgard oozes remorse and boozy breath as the distinctly unregal king. In the company of the male actors’ assorted North Sea burrs, Sarah Polley’s flat North American accent sticks out oddly in her representation as a raven-haired, sexually open-minded witch willing to welcome to her lair both the troll and the man who would kill him.
Stark, barren Icelandic locations stand front and center in Jan Kiesser’s muscular widescreen compositions. Rugged costumes are convincing, and score goes part of the way to providing an epic spirit.