My first guest post! Katrina wrote this lovely review of Beowulf for our Medieval Round Table listserve, and I'm posting it here with permission.
The Roundtable Film Club had its first outing, to see Beowulf in 3D at the
big screen Imax. Helen H arranged the tickets, for which we are all
grateful, and we had a lovely time, except in the bits when we almost
The film was immensely entertaining, and I’m sure all our ‘normal’ friends
are glad that we found other medievalists to go with, as we critiqued it
at length afterwards.
The rest of this email has spoilers, but you all know the plot anyway, so
what does it matter?
Actually, there are parts of the movie plot that even the closest reading
of Beowulf would not reveal, mainly about who is and is not sleeping with
whom, and I won’t reveal any details. (The same could also be said of the
frequently naked Beowulf, who was strategically prevented from revealing
his details protected by an entertaining array of helmets, other people'
shoulders, trestles, bits of Grendel, light fixtures and vegetables.)
Visually it’s a stunning film, which goes a long way to making up for the
fairly uninspired script and performances. The 3D-ness of it was
overwhelming at times, with spears landing in the middle of one’s
forehead, and the gruesome dribble of Grendel masticating a brave but
foolhardy Geat getting way too close for comfort.
The sets were ‘virtual’ creations and the actors were all digitally
mapped, which makes for some gee-whiz action sequences, but leads to
heavy, wooden acting. Beowulf’s dialogue came out with all the excitement
of a school speech night, and Angelina Jolie looked even more android-like
than usual (read more about what the actors thought of their digitisation here).
I’m pretty impressed that Angelina had a plait so long that it looked like
a tail and could be used as a weapon. She also has built-in high heels,
giving her the appearance, as Stephanie said, of the advertising poster
from ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ It was fun to see Ray Winstone transformed
from an ageing tubster into a Scandinavian warrior with Brad Pitt’s body.
But movements cannot be divorced from the bodies performing them, so
Beowulf never looked as if he really fitted and controlled the
impressively muscled body bestowed upon him by the digital technology.
The superhero-style action was sometimes at odds with the grubby realism
of the impressive setting, and rather than being scary or affecting was
often just plain silly.
Anthony Hopkins, barely recognisable except for eyes and voice, was King
Hrothgar, and was clad only in a bedsheet/toga to host a feast in his
accursed mead hall, so we saw far more of podgy loins than we really
needed too. I can confidently assert that no proto-Viking king worth his
arm ring would have shown up in anything other than his most impressive
warrior-standard party gear.
The film had, of course, numerous anachronisms and inaccuracies, but
no-one expected it to be a documentary. The setting is given as AD 507,
yet the Danish landscape featured buildings taller than any it would
actually have for about another thousand years. The Danes themselves
don’t come across terribly well, a bunch of wimps with bad teeth and no
backbone, whereas the Geats are tough in all ways except their names.
“I’m a GEEK” Beowulf proudly announced, or so it sounded. He was calling
himself a ‘Geet,’ turning into a nerdish grunt the name which, in a
Scandinavian pronunciation, would have a palatalised /g/ followed by a
rising diphthong which gives it quite an ominous sound guaranteed to chill
the marrow of the nastiest foe. ‘Geek’ or even ‘Geet’ just didn’t quite
have the same punch.
The whole ‘Finn-fighting’ section of the poem is omitted, but we do have a
Frisian in a bear-skin (complete with head) which is perhaps a nod to the
‘berserkr’ tradition. Beowulf, who fights Grendel naked, goes with the
other interpretation that ‘berserkr’ means ‘bare-shirt.” Oðinn is
frequently invoked, but so too is the new-fangled Christian god, with
Hrothgar’s Denmark subject to Christian missionary, centuries before the
Danes really underwent evangelisation. The introduction of religious
tension seemed a bit gratuitous. As these people are already stuck with a
flesh-eating monster and his scary mother, a sonless king and a golden
dragon, there is enough scope for conflict in there without adding
Conversion, but is perhaps one way of introducing the Christian
perspective of the Beowulf-poet into this decidely non-Christian milieu.
Credit where it’s due - the Viking ships looked absolutely gorgeous. They
were accurate reconstructions of excavated Viking Age ships, which might
make them anachronistic, but I’m not complaining. They were stunning.
I’d sail away on one of them any day.
Anyway, this is way more than my 2 cents worth. I’m going to resist the
urge to mention the preponderance of precious metals, and the visual and
verbal references to other Heroic Age Germanic poety, and hand over to
someone else who saw the movie and might want to share their views and
One last thing - If you want to read the Danish perspective on the
pre-viking age, have a look at the 12-13th century History of the Danes by
Huge thanks to Helen for organising the trip. It would be great if we
could have similar excursions for any medieval-themed films that come out.
I know my friends would be very grateful if they didn’t have to go with me
. . .