beowulf_movie_image_lDirected by: Robert Zemecksis.

Written by: Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary based on the epic poem “Beowulf”.

Starring: Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie. 113 min. PG-13.

Review top sheet: an intriguing fusion of Anglo Saxon epic, modern dramatic expectations and computer-generated reality – a safe, interesting night out with a date or friends, and one you won’t regret.

Will you like this film?

  • Yes, if the anticipated tedium of reading the epic poem itself is too great to overcome, but as an educated person you feel you really ought to know what it is about.
  • No, if you know the poem well and are going to be narked by seeing it hacked about sufficiently to make a place for the likes of Angelina Jolie.
  • Maybe, if you’re up for seeing an acceptably good story served up via state-of-the-art visual technology.


General comments: if you don’t know: Beowulf is an animated film which relies on CGI effects. Normally, this would be a good reason not to see it since, typically, when someone has come up with some new effects, they write a film around said effects which ends up being as successful as an underwater fireworks display. Beowulf is not one of those films.

The technique used here is called motion capture: the actors are rendered directly into fine animated versions of themselves and integrated into a virtual world. Unlike the gimmicky films mentioned above, the technology here is fully justified. Firstly, it allows the players to interact with a world which is limited only by imagination (rather than budget, location or prop makers) – very handy when dealing with myth and monsters. Secondly, it frees up the point of view (the point from which the camera regards the action), allowing spectacular angles and running shots. The downside is that – for reasons I do not understand – computer-generated reality is still unable to realistically convey a sense of weight (anything which moves looks like a gust of wind would blow it away); nor does it make touch look convincing – especially skin upon skin. Also, eyes often remain leaden and unseeing. But, who cares! See it anyway. And if you speak Russian, check it out in the main screens, where it is showing in 3D.

Out-of-five star ratings:

  • Story: ****
  • Acting: ***
  • Substance: ***
  • Film craft: *****


Story comments: Beowulf is based loosely on the Anglo Saxon epic poem, which originated in England around the 5th century and is set in Scandinavia. It has been beefed up to make it more consumer friendly, and in its new form embodies the quintessential monomyth expounded by Joseph Campbell in his seminal Hero with a Thousand Faces (where, to summarise, he argues that all heroes basically go through the same stuff in different form). Consciously, we would claim to prefer variety, but in reality, we like our heroes to complete very definite stages in their journey. Only when the hero has successfully negotiated these can we come away truly satisfied. If he does not meet our expectations, we feel lack. If he does meet them but in a predictable way, we feel bored. Overcoming this trap is the task of screenwriters.

I compared the original outline of Beowulf with that of the film, and I say the writers have done a very passable job. A modern audience is drawn in for the duration of the film, yet enough of the original survives to justify using the same title.

Acting comments: some of the dialogue is a bit wooden and I could not see the point of Beowulf’s London accent. Also, the technology – despite its undeniable achievements – still acts as a barrier between the actor and viewer.

Substance comments: the film gives the story a Faustian twist and so it’s not all just about Beowulf killing monsters, looking cool and showing off his six-pack – although there’s plenty of that as well.

There were some interesting comments which identify the advent of Christianity as the end of the heroic era (with its heroism, appetite and fearlessness) which it replaced with guilt, self-negation and the glorification of suffering. Nietzsche would have got up and applauded.

Film craft comments: astounding, tastefully and spectacularly delivered (the caveats mentioned above notwithstanding).

A taste of the story: a kingdom is afflicted by a cruel and gruesome monster – it needs a true hero to put things right.

Published by The Moscow News.

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