It's the oldest written tale in the English language; it's a school literature text; and yet few people know the story of Beowulf very well. This brand new, big budget screen adaptation won't help much, substantially modifying the action and the characters as it does, yet it tells the classic tale with much of the spirit of the original. As the latest stage in the evolution of a legend which once evoked terror when recited round fireplaces in lonely halls amongst chilly, windswept hills, it does its job well. It's bold and flashy, then dark and creepy, in all the right ways. Whilst it may have disposed of most of the original subplot which gave us sympathy for the monster and made us question the morality of the people of Heorot, it still offers a complex Grendel and troubled heroes.

In case you're not familiar with it, Beowulf is the tale of a mighty warrior who crosses the sea to aid a people who are under seige from a terrifying monster, Grendel, and who in turn must do battle with the monster's dangerous mother. With a fearsome dragon thrown into the mix and some thrilling battle sequences, it's got everything necessary to give fans of fantasy cinema a great night out. Grendel may sometimes look just a bit too cuddly and Aardmanesque in his plasticine deformity, but he's no less scary for it, and the animation is impressive throughout. It creates just the right sense of otherworldliness, expertly contrasting the warmth of the hall with the cold waste beyond where dread things have been exiled.

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Beowulf is not a historically accurate piece, and those who are fond of the original poem should steel themselves before they go to see it. I'll admit I nearly cried out loud at Ray Winstone's pronunciation of 'Geats'. That the story has been altered is fair enough, but anachronisms such as "A king should never engage directly in combat," where that king is the warrior hero, are quite out of line. Likewise the bizarre attitude and behavior of the queen.

These things aside, the writers have done a surprisingly good job of maintaining some of the important themes of the piece - the sexual irresponsibility of men, the importance of home and the moral conflict involved in balancing reputation and honour. These give Beowulf considerably more depth than your average modern monster-bashing tale. Having Grendel (and occasionally his mother) speak in Old English is also a nice touch. It reminds us that whilst we continually strive to see ourselves in what is heroic, what frightens us is ancient and remains unchanged.

Literary responsibilities and moral ambiguities aside, Beowulf remains a rollicking good story of man versus monsters, full of gory violence, sexy women, heavy drinking, treasure and shouting. No doubt its original audience would love it, and modern audiences can look forward to a stomping piece of entertainment.

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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Anton Bitel ***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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