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Sins of the fathers
A film review of BEOWULF by Camus
 
  "Now I haven't seen the movie, but I've seen a little bit of it on the trailer, and it looks pretty good, I think."
 
Sir Anthony Hopkins, understating the case.

 

I am not a fan of motion capture. Oh, wait – Gollum! No... No. Let's be accurate. I found the digital Tom Hanks in The Polar Express to be alarmingly creepy. I know a much missed friend disagreed with me on that particular movie but now the same Polar Express director, Robert Zemeckis, has his digital hands on source material worth anyone's cinema time. The Polar Express was an iced confectionery with added unintended creepiness.

Beowulf is the real deal - a solid story that, at times, appears to be photorealistic (how far we have come). No, seriously. The close ups of Beowulf really make you believe you may be witnessing the tipping point of movie special effects. Strangely Beowulf, as a digital doppelganger, is not the face and generous 'sexy beast' body size of the voice artist Ray Winstone given the animators' penchant for making digital doubles of their actors. His full throated performance is entirely convincing regardless.

Is that really CG? Or is that face of the huge heroic warrior, looking for things to slay so he can have songs sung about him, actually just simply an actor? The literal rendition is that good (but only the character of Beowulf). And why is this? Because we know what the real Anthony Hopkins looks like and moves like, just as we know the same about other well known faces in the cast. Jon Malkovich doesn't fare as well as Hopkins. It must be the hair. Where the movie Beowulf screams "I'm CG!" is the horses. Their animation is well under par given how good the human beings are. I'm not sure we are close to achieving full CG acceptance as aping real actors whose faces and mannerisms we instinctively know. But maybe we are closer than we think. And what exactly does that mean for the future of cinema? I find it a delicious irony that the most ancient of literary texts forms the basis of the most state of the art, startlingly realized CGI movie since Ratatouille (yes, I'm kidding). The two movies are poles apart (one's set in Iceland, the other, Paris).

Now, the ancient text of Beowulf crops up in Woody Allen's Annie Hall in a very negative context. But for a full on IMAX 3D Zemeckis blast, it's tailor made. Sad to say, I saw the film in a conventional cinema - and to my delight, it still kicked a serious amount of Icelandic ass. With two 11 year olds in tow, my after-movie experience was rife with "Why did..." and "So how come the..." questions. I am no ancient literature expert but (unlike The Polar Express) Beowulf is crammed full of subtext, metaphor and downright mystery. Things happen which are not explained and underlined leaving the viewer (the reader in olden times) with a serious amount of stuff to fill in for themselves. Here's the story in case the word 'Beowulf' doesn't conjure up instant narrative recognition.

1,400 years ago, an old Scandinavian King celebrates harvest with his young wife and villagers. The sound of this celebration is abhorrent to a physically deformed, huge humanoid creature so impressively designed and rendered that it took me some time to stop admiring it. He literally gatecrashes and lets loose an orgy of unexpected violence (way too strong for its 12A certificate - or it certainly felt like it - it must be terrifying in IMAX 3D). Even more terrifying is that this overtly deformed and hideously ugly creature's mum is Angelina Jolie. I don't think Brad could have been the father... We'll get to her in a moment and to the ironic DNA that she passed on to her monstrous boy, named Grendel. The king (Hopkins, happily drunk throughout) sobers up and goes face to face with the creature who does not harm him ('Hmm,' I thought. I wonder what that narrative signpost is pointing at? And to my delight, the movie never tells you - you have to work it out for yourself). The king sends word that a hero is required and with a jaw squarer than Steve Davis' chemistry teacher, Beowulf arrives.

Now you have to understand how these warrior people lived - or rather their philosophy of life. It was (to use a modern term) to make a difference, to achieve something so noteworthy that songs would avail them a curious immortality. Beowulf is the epitome of the hero and he has a physique almost embarrassingly brimful of machismo but there is something earthily earnest about the lad that makes you like him. Another raucous party later, to summon Grendel once more, the creature arrives to find a buck naked human hero who's giving his opponent respect enough not to spear him or slash him with a sword. It's mano a monstero, in unarmed and unclothed combat - and it's a grating mistake on the film-maker's part.

Naked people tend to have invisible signs on their body parts screaming at you to take a look at certain locations (areas in the midlands as far as males are concerned and northern mountain ranges and more midlands when it comes to the female form). The Simpsons Movie subverted that 'problem' quite brilliantly but what should be a huge fight sequence (which it is) ends up gene spliced with the Austin Powers 'Obscure The Willy' scene. I'm sure there's some sly humour at work here but it sat uncomfortably with the ultra-violence that accompanied it. It was - in amongst the carnage - "Oh, now he walks towards us, proud with a candlestick obscuring his man parts..." It's none too subtle and a curious mis-step in amongst such astounding wizardry.

On to Angelina. Not that man parts remind me of Angelina Jolie. She's a curious female icon. As my late friend, Richard Franklin, used to consistently remind me (a phrase applying to all those double X chromosome human beings), "She's an actress..." with the implication that in the 1500s, the profession was closely linked with... uh... professional stitution. In 2007, celebrity rules and this lovely creature has staked her claim (albeit unintentionally) as the woman most revered by men and most despised by women with little intelligence and low regard for their own self esteem. How sweeping was that? This ain't Hello magazine.

No, the reason for the Jolie introduction was threefold. Firstly, it was reported that she was reluctant to show her kids the movie because mummy is damn well naked throughout (no triangular pubic hair in evidence but the nipples do say hullo at various points - bad pun, for which I apologise). Secondly, no one else could really play this part because the media and Jolie herself have grudgingly conspired to make her the pin up of the decade. Most men would acknowledge Jolie's appeal. They'd probably do more than that. So Beowulf is a manly hero! But he cannot resist Jolie's charms. Thirdly, she's just a girl. Yes, the lips, yes, the figure, yes, the twinkle in the eye and yes, the seemingly (media made up) dangerous 'blood in a bottle' idiosyncrasies. But she's just a girl. Let's not forget she's also a damn fine Oscar winning actress with a kind heart and adoptive nature.

As Grendel's mum, she also has a tail (that's OK) and high heeled shoes made of the flesh of her feet. So in short (or tall given the size of the stilettos), she's presented as the ultimate man-trap. And trap she does. She has the qualifications. Occupation: Hero Trap. So years later, Beowulf has to face his demons (after admitting a mistake on his part as regards Angelina - as one would have to) and it's a thrilling scene, superbly directed and sustained by animators who must have pulled more than six 'all weekenders'. The dragon's fire is for real and for fleeting moments this reviewer felt the same about Beowulf.

See it and marvel.

Beowulf

USA 2007
113 mins
director
Robert Zemeckis
producers
Steve Bing
Jack Rapke
Steve Starkey
Robert Zemeckis
screenplay
Neil Gaiman
Roger Avary
cinematography
Robert Presley
editor
Jeremiah O'Driscoll
music
Alan Silvestri
production design
Doug Chiang
starring
Ray Winstone
Robin Wright Penn
Anthony Hopkins
John Malkovich
Angelina Jolie
review posted
30 November 2007

See all of Camus's reviews