Beowulf is one of my favourite works of epic poetry, but the subject matter, which jumps all over the place and back and forth through time, is fairly unworkable on film. I was interested to see what the makers of this fairly low budget epic would do with the material, and in the end I was more than satisfied. As the title indicates, Beowulf & Grendel focuses on the central thrust of the story, ignoring side-stories and the later Beowulf vs. dragon showdown to deliver a simple retelling of the main part of the age-old legend.
The story is largely expanded from the original, with many peripheral characters added and extra scenes. Some of these work (Eddie Marsan’s psychotic Christian missionary helps to set the film in its time rather well) but others I could have done without, such as Sarah Polley’s witch. Still, for the most part, the story is well achieved, with plenty of atmosphere and a real sense of place. Somebody had the brilliant idea of filming in the bleak Icelandic countryside, full of mountains and rocks and waterfalls with nary a blade of grass in sight; the decision paid off (despite problems with the weather during the shoot) and you can really believe the action is taking place over a thousand years ago.
Gerard Butler does well as the hero, his Beowulf equally as rugged as the isolated scenery. His role feels like a dry-run for 300’s King Leonidas. Most of the supporting cast are interchangeable, but Stellan Starsgard is fine as the complex, tormented Hrothgar. Grendel is a more sympathetic creation here than in the poem; he’s given his own back story, which I didn’t mind, and he looks like a caveman rather than a hideous monster. Some of the incident in the eventual showdown between man and monster is changed and the later sub-plot involving Grendel’s mother feels rushed, but I felt these problems were insignificant. For the most part, Beowulf & Grendel ably brings to life the heroism and terror of the Anglo-Saxon age.