Times change. Just one decade ago, it would have been well-nigh impossible to make a successful pitch for a big-budget bells-and-whistles adaptation of an epic poem written in Old English by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon in the eighth century CE, and set in Denmark two centuries earlier - but that was before Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy made a mint. In fact, if it was not for Tolkien's championing of Beowulf in a celebrated 1936 essay, and his reverential appropriation of motifs from it in his books The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings, even the original poem would have remained in relative obscurity, and would certainly not have been canonised as a school text.

No time, it might be argued, has been better than the present to attempt a movie version of the heroic epic. When there be dragons (and sea monsters, and hideous pain-wracked giants), today's advances in CGI have the edge in assisting viewers to suspend their disbelief - and Robert Zemeckis has brought all the lessons he learnt from making The Polar Express (2004) to bear on this new animated feature, available in full IMAX 3D, as well as 3D and 2D versions for regular cinemas. It is a film for our times.

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No one likes it when neighbours party late into the night, but the hideous Grendel (Crispin Hellion Glover) responds more drastically than most, murdering half of the noisy revelers in the famous mead-hall of dissolute King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). Hrothgar offers a reward of gold to any warrior who can rid his land of the monstrous troglodyte, drawing a young Viking warrior named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) across the waves, along with his trusty friend Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and a small band of men. Where his predecessors had sought to line their coffers, Beowulf hungers to expand his already legendary status - and he quickly sets about facing Grendel unarmed (and unclad), sending the creature back to its maker.

Which is half the problem - for even with Grendel dead, the murders continue, and Beowulf must enter its mountain cave to find its powerful and seductive mother (Angelina Jolie). Differing versions emerge of what happens between them in the wet and the dark, but their clinch results in Beowulf's long and preternaturally successful rule on the dead Hrothgar's throne, with Hrothgar's wise queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) at his side.

Decades later, Beowulf is an ageing king of international renown, his wife is older too, and he has taken himself a much younger lover (Alison Lohman) - but then his seemingly invincible grip on power is challenged when a golden dragon begins to ravage all the surrounding villages. Now Beowulf must confront not only his most destructive foe, but some home truths that he has long kept hidden.

The world of heroic myth in which Beowulf unfolds is neither like nor entirely unlike our own, so it seems perfectly suited for depiction through the filter of not-quite-photorealistic animation. The animated avatars of Hopkins, Malkovich (as king's advisor Unferth), Wright Penn, Gleeson and Lohman, achieved through a state-of-the-art combination of motion-capture and CGI, all look the very image of the real performers. Even Jolie, as the incarnation of pure feminine evil (with a serpentine ponytail), though far removed from any kind of reality, conforms closely to a tabloid fantasy version of herself.

Apart from Glover as Grendel, who strikes a note of truly freakish otherworldliness both because of the horrifying way he looks and because of his piercing attempt at something like Old English, the only real odd one out here is the titular hero. Why Winstone was cast as a blonde-haired Jesus-type over six-and-a-half feet in height remains a mystery that will be forever lost in the sands of time; for this Beowulf looks (and sounds) less like the stocky Cockney, and more like, well, Sean Bean. As a character, too, Beowulf stands out as the film's weakest link, a consistently flat presence in a three-dimensional landscape.

Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary know it, too, reserving their tricksiest material (and freest adaptation) for attempts to squeeze complexity out of the Nordic Hercules. So obsessed is this Beowulf with his own place in future songs of glory that he is willing to lie about his own actions, and so the film repeatedly calls into question the reality of his heroic deeds - but, as in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (or, for that matter, Homer's Odyssey), a myth is here being deconstructed only to be reinforced and updated, and of course Beowulf's heroism, albeit a mildly mutated brand of heroism, shines golden at the end. Grendel and the fabulously realised dragon are both defeated, even if their mother - their Pandora-like, Jolie-lipped mother - lives on to ruin the heroes of subsequent generations, right down to our own. If Bush seems flawed, there is no doubt a svelte Lara Croft figure pulling his strings.

Boasting the sort of acrobatic cinematography that can only be achieved in the digital domain, Beowulf is a gruff, bawdy boys'-own adventure with a surprisingly sophisticated sting in its tail. The misogyny that underlies it is even more ancient than the myth on which it is based - but there is at the same time the subversive suggestion that all these men really have only themselves to blame for the demons that they are cursed to fight.

Reviewed on: 13 Nov 2007
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An imaginative retelling of the Old English story about a hero who saves a kingdom from a monster and its mother.
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Jennie Kermode ***1/2

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary

Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman, Angelina Jolie

Year: 2007

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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