‘Beowulf & Grendel’ is best when it shuts up

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, June 15, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Coming along like a Viking picture abducted by Monty Python, “Beowulf &Grendel” is so crazy it sometimes works. Other times, this movie seems to have taken a wrong turn in its remote Icelandic location and gotten hopelessly lost.

It’s based on the epic ancient poem that used to be taught in high school. The warrior-hero Beowulf (played by cool Scots actor Gerard Butler, from “Phantom of the Opera”) comes to the land of the Danes to help a drunken, ambivalent king, Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard).

Beowulf and his wild bunch will help Hrothgar combat a murderous troll (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson). This troll, named Grendel, has been terrorizing the community; what Beowulf doesn’t know is that Grendel has an old ax to grind (detailed in the movie’s unfortunately giggle-worthy prologue).

There’s a local witch, played by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who doles out sympathy for Grendel as well as earthy wisdom for Beowulf. No one ever asks why she speaks in a Canadian accent when everyone else is growling along in northern-English burrs.

But this is an odd movie on a lot of fronts. Icelandic-born director Sturla Gunnarsson uses the grunge of a revisionist epic: foul modern cursing, the absence of heroism and a collection of dirty beards – including, if I’m not mistaken, on some of the women.

But he also goes for sneaky comedy, which has a contemporary feel. Perhaps this is a technique to distance the audience from the action. It works.

When Gunnarsson introduced the movie for its Seattle International Film Festival screening, he suggested “Beowulf” might be taken as a parable for current world events. That it may be, but it doesn’t rescue the film’s shortcomings. The relatively low budget, for instance, is probably to blame for the makeup, which can become laughable when you’re talking about putting trolls on the screen.

It was also hard to decipher the accents of the muttering warriors. I must have missed a third of the dialogue, so maybe I’ll like the movie better with subtitles on a DVD. (Sarah Polley’s accent might have been jarring, but at least she was intelligible.)

The location shooting in Iceland is stunning, with lonesome vistas and moody beachfronts filling practically every shot. This film is at its best when it’s not talking.

Gerard Butler stars in “Beowulf &Grendel.”

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