Friday, December 19, 2008

Beowulf: A Movie Review


OK, I received my scholarly training as a student of Anglo-Saxon history. I have read Beowulf in no fewer than three college and grad sources, and I have taught it twice. When the movie came out, it was inevitable I take a class on a field trip. Here are some initial reactions:

It is inevitable that any student of the poem will have nits to pick with the movie. It has its share of anachronisms and outright silliness. Mentions of Greenland, Vinland,and Iceland are a few centuries off base, as the Vikings did not settle these lands until the late ninth century at the earliest. Likewise, the presence of Christian missionaries in Denmark in the sixth century would have been jumping the gun just a bit, as missionaries were just making inroads at this time into the formerly roman territories of Frankish Gaul and Anglo-Saxon Britain.

When it comes to fight scenes, Bruckheimer favors coolness over historical accuracy. While the swords, spears, axes, and armor with which we see Geats and Danes armed themselves rang true, the bows firing massed volleys at the dragon belonged to another era. Even worse were the heavy siege engines, unknown in unromanized Denmark, with which the Danes fought the dragon. Even if they had existed, it is unlikely that these oversized crossbows would have been accurate enough to use against a swiftly flying creature. But the biggest groans of all should be reserved for the soaring stone castle Beowulf builds for himself, half a millennium out of date. The more authentic hearth-lit wooden rafters of Heorot give way in the second half of the movie to the ridiculous castle which suggests that the art designer was seduced by Peter Jackson’s aesthetics in the Lord of the Rings movies.

The medievalist in me was most disappointed by the representation of Germanic art in the film. Surely, this should have been one of the easiest aspects of recreating a past world to get right. Early Scandinavian design favored abstract, interlacing design that would have covered most exposed surfaces. These same motifs would have appeared in jewelry which, along with wood carving and textiles, the favored medium of the early Germanic peoples. Yet the surfaces in Heorot are raw and drab. The jewelry, with the exception of the golden dragon horn which serves as the plot’s MacGuffin, is drab, tacky, and uninteresting, looking more like props to a Wagner opera. The treasure of Heorot, so central to the social world of the poem, becomes a pile of souvenir trinkets from a Renaissance Fair.

I was prepared to be shocked by the nudity in the film, of which I had been forewarned. Instead, I was amused and vaguely embarrassed. The poem has Beowulf forswear weapons before the Grendel-fight. The decision to make him go into battle naked was entirely Bruckheimer’s. And yet, to keep the film from an NC-17 rating, the audience is treated to an endless series of “Austin Powers”-inspired gags, in which Beowulf’s manhood is shielded from sight by an array of strategically-placed props. It turned what should have been one of the key dramatic moments of the movie, in which the young hero forges his reputation, into a slapstick laughingstock, if the audience’s reaction is anything to judge by.

If Beowulf’s nudity was comical, the portrayal of Grendel’s mother was downright puzzling. I was dubious about the decision to cast the lovely Angelina Jolie as a creature described by the poet as a “slaughter-wolf,” but if Grendel’s Mother represents male anxiety about female power, then the decision to emphasize her sexuality over her savagery merely shifts the locus of that anxiety to a more modern part of the psyche. But if this was indeed the director’s intent (and not a shameless attempt to harness Jolie’s star power at the box office), his decisions in putting her on the screen are puzzling. If she is meant to be a sexually voracious predator, then why neuter her by airbrushing out her nipples and labia? Angelina becomes not the primal succubus, tempting generation after generation of men into selling their souls, but rather the ultimate trophy wife for aging warriors, ornament rather than ogre, Barbie doll rather than Eve. Her heels, bent forever into organic stilettos, only reinforce the comparison to Barbie.

More to come as I get my rant on…
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