2 December 2007
If you know Robert Zemeckis, you know he's a sucker for technical wizardry. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future, Contact, The Polar Express, Monster House...heck, even Forrest Gump had Tom Hanks' gurning, intensely annoying simpleton superimposed into historical footage. And Beowulf is no different; in fact, it's probably the pinnacle of his technical achievements.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Beowulf is the decision to go with the 'performance capture' technique at all. We've all seen that fantasy works perfectly well outside of animation - despite heavy usage of special effects - so why not just stick with a formula that works? Superficially, the answer is 'because we can! Suck it!'; but delving a little deeper, and it because perfectly clear as to why Zemeckis chose the technique.
Story-wise...well, if you don't know it, what planet have you been living on? Still, here goes: ancient Denmark is being terrorised by the monster Grendel, and word is spread that untold riches will be awarded to the man who slays it. Beowulf - a mighty Geat warrior - hears of this, and decides that he shall be the one to kill Denmark's monster. Of course, he will also have to deal with Grendel's mother, but therein could lie a problem.
And then there's the first reason why Zemeckis' decision is clear. The casting. Ray Winstone - an ageing, balding, slightly over-weight 50-something - plays Beowulf, a blonde...well, it's been thrown about already, but the guy is an Adonis; all rippling muscles, ruggedly handsome face and scars everywhere. But then again, Winstone wasn't cast for his physique; he was cast for what he could bring to the role - a sort of naive bravado at first, which slowly and inexorably evolves until he becomes a hero in every sense of the word. And Winstone portrays it beautifully, seeing as Beowulf is Winstone, albeit digitally altered. You can forgive him a few spotty accent moments - and there are quite a few - for an otherwise superb performance.
The rest of the cast - barring an unusually awful turn from John Malkovich - are all solid, with Anthony Hopkins having a huge amount of fun with the drunken King Hrothgar, and Robin Wright Penn bringing a quiet dignity to his trophy Queen Wealthrow. Angelina Jolie brings a guilty pleasure aspect to the movie - seeing her all but naked and bathed in gold is quite simply fascinating, and her accent is, to be quite honest, rather haunting. Not that her astonishing beauty has nothing to do with the story, but that's best saved for when you actually go see the film.
The script is solid; it adds a few layers that the rather one-dimensional original lacks, and compacts it somewhat to take place in one place, although this can be construed as adding complexity to what should have been a straightforward tale. Interesting, too, is the decision to constrain the story to merely three - albeit stunningly realised - major locations, and coupled with the added depth, it simply feels richer than other realisations of the story.
If there are problems with it, it does seem that Zemeckis has been heavily influenced by other fantasy epics - most notably the now infamous 300, particularly in the fact that the protagonist seems do a lot of manly shouting, much like the three-hundred Spartans did. The stylised violence, too, seems a bit over-directed at times; and it raises the question as to whatever happened to good old straightforward fight scenes.
But deep down, this is just a full-blooded fantasy/action film; and thus you don't really have to have the old noodle switched on to fully enjoy it. Be warned, it's certainly at the high-end of its 12A certification - there are some really quite scary moments, and the aforementioned nudity of the Jolie kind. But if you can stomach that - and for the latter, who couldn't? - then there's a hell of a lot to like about Beowulf. Excellent stuff.
Ross' Rating: 8