STARRING: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman

2007, 113 Minutes, Directed by:
Robert Zemeckis

“Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me”, says Beowulf film director Robert Zemeckis. “I remember being assigned to read it in junior high school and not being able to understand it because it was in Old English. It was one of those horrible assignments. I never really thought about it after that, never considered that it might make for an interesting story. But when I read the screenplay that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary did, I was immediately captivated.”

The poem Beowulf had been criticized for centuries for its logic flaws. The original story, written in Old English on thin sheets of shaved leather, doesn’t make complete sense. The monster Grendel never attacks King Hrothgar, only torments him. Beowulf ventures into the lair of Grendel’s mother to kill her, yet he emerges from the cave with Grendel’s head. Based on a 6th century battle in Denmark, the poem originated from Anglo-Saxons in northern England two hundred years later who saw themselves not as British, but as Vikings. The key to telling the oldest epic tale in the English language is to make sense of the original 3,000-line poem.

Beowulf screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery devised a clever solution to Beowulf’s logic issues. “Basically, Neil came up with the key operator of a unified field theory of Beowulf, which I had been working on for a decade”, says Avery. “It became obvious to me that Beowulf had fallen prey to the same temptations I surmised had befallen Hrothgar, the temptations of a siren. He had made a pact with a demon.” Gaiman and Avary had worked together before on the unproduced Sandman screenplay, based on Gaiman’s DC Comics series that won nine Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards and three Harvey Awards. Avary co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino.

Given a brilliant fresh interpretation of a classic epic, does Beowulf the movie succeed? With powerful performances from the actors, Beowulf makes a convincing try. It sounds like a proper British epic. Anthony Hopkins, the first actor cast, chose to use his native Welsh accent “because Welsh is an ancient language, several thousand years old.” Grendel speaks his lines in Old English. “Beowulf…has a real visceral quality”, says Zemeckis. “He cares only about what he can kill, what he can eat, who he can screw.”

"Angelina Jolie’s fully nude for the entire film!"

Zemeckis in his prior film The Polar Express developed a technique called performance capture that he uses again for Beowulf. “When you do a performance capture film, you have the ability to do two forms of casting, one for performance and one for likeness, which means you can actually separate what a character looks like in the film from the performer who portrays that character,” says Beowulf producer Steve Starkey. “The great thing about the technique is that it allowed someone like me, who is 5’10” and a little on the plump side, to play a 6’6” golden-haired Viking”, says Departed actor Ray Winstone who plays Beowulf. Crispin Glover, as the tormented monster Grendal, is truly gross, not merely biting the head off a victim, but chewing it thoroughly.

“Yes, she’s a monster, but she’s also a mom, and that’s the essence behind everything she does”, says Angelina Jolie. “Grendel’s mother is a demon and a seductress to the nth degree and nobody can do that kind of sultry character as well as Angelina Jolie,” says Zemeckis. “I loved it”, says Jolie. “At first, I thought, oh this is going to be so weird, all of us actors with these dots on our faces, in these wetsuit-type costumes, with no props or sets. But, what it really does is strip everything down to the essentials of performing, especially in the scenes between Crispin and me. They were just pure amazing emotion.”

“What’s interesting about this way of acting, with no sets, no costumes, just these silly suits with dots all over your face, is that you can do the whole scene, and it goes very quickly because you don’t have to break it up the way you do on a conventional film”, says Anthony Hopkins who plays King Hrothgar. Angelina Jolie actually needs no costume for Beowulf because she doesn’t wear any. She’s fully nude for the entire film, but as a plastic Barbie doll animated version of herself with the naughty bits airbrushed out.

“The key term was black box theater, that’s what got me”, says Brendan Gleeson, a Harry Potter veteran who plays Beowulf’s stalwart friend Wiglaf. “All the performances happen in this big square thing and your world is created within that. It’s not blue or green screen. It’s a completely different concept. Most of the theater I’d done in the ‘80s, for example, was in the black box. We couldn’t afford props so we’d mime them or create them in the audience’s head, and that’s what this process is a little bit like. Now, all the dots and the embarrassing black suit aside, it’s the same kind of thing, you’ve got to transport yourself within that volume.”

“One of the most serious limitations on Polar Express was that we couldn't capture the eye performance simultaneously with the face”, says visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. “And the reason was because we couldn't put dots on the eyes and track their movement.” Jerome Chen and his visual effects team at Sony Imageworks developed a new technology called EOG to track muscle pulses being given off by the eye and the eyelids while simultaneously capturing the facial performance and the body performance.

Unfortunately, the technology of performance capture still has flaws. The eyes of the photo-realistically animated characters often slip into a Toy Story-like lifeless stare. Ultimately, what’s missing is the full nuance of the actor’s performances. The monsters are more convincing. Beowulf is one of the largest 3D film releases ever, on more than 700 screens nationwide. I enjoyed watching the IMAX 3D version at Universal in Hollywood (with glasses). It’s also being shown in 2D.

- Robin Rowe

The CG process the same as that used by Zemeckis in Polar Express is off-putting. With their dead, unblinking eyes the characters look stoned; more heroine addicts than heroic archetypes. Horses also hop around unconvincingly like bunny rabbits. However, if you’re familiar with the 1000-year plus old epic poem the movie is based on, then you will be intrigued by what script writers Neil Gaiman (of Sandman fame) and Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) does with the material at hand, taking the story into unexpected directions and making some interesting comments on heroism and history in the process. Also, some unexpected medieval grittiness adds to the overall texture of the tale. And we just love the fact that unlike the recent Beowulf & Grendel movie starring Gerald Butler (the Spartan King in 300) Grendel still kills off those pesky Danes because he’s annoyed with their noisy singing and drunkenness. Anyone who ever had to cope with noisy party-animal neighbors will surely identify! James O'Ehley


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