For those who don’t want to know about the film until they can see it themselves, there are spoilers ahead! Not many, given that my memory is a little blurry and I’m not going to be able to give a point by point summary of the movie. But still -- consider yourself duly warned…
So Friday night, the opening night in NYC, I saw Beowulf and Grendel, choosing to the go to an early showing at Quad Cinema with my Anglo-Saxonist-Poet colleague and friend, who I think I’ll call Scop. There are perks to having friends with the similar research interests – you can enjoy being what others might consider dorky knowing full well your enthusiasms will only be fueled by hanging out. It’s great. Anyway, I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie, with mixed terror and delight, since I first heard they were making it. Certain things, of course, are to be expected from the Icelandic Film Corporation. Beowulf and Grendel had the same feel as No Such Thing, another movie that Scop and I saw together a few months ago (though being older, it was on DVD). The landscapes were exquisite.
As the film opened, I was immediately struck that as “A Hate is Born,” (the subtitle for this section of the film) we’re meeting Grendel’s father. I was a little taken aback. Grendel’s father? Why would Grendel have a father? I forced myself to wait and see before I judged it, which was a bit difficult given that Grendel does not have a a father!! Anyway, Hrothgar and his men kill Grendel’s dad. Grendel, a mere child (albeit a a child with a beard ), is saved because his father has him hide on the edge of a cliff. Hrothgar takes off his helmet, revealing the wonderful Stellan Skarsgard as the assailant. Grendel’s dad having just fallen from the cliff to the beach below, Grendel clearly isn’t going to remember the mercy of the king, who chooses not to kill him. The scene ends with Grendel going down to the beach, finding his father’s body and, when he gets no response from him, hacking off his fathers head. He takes the head back to his lair, where he sets it up in a sort of shrine. Fast forward to years later, and the shrine is still there, a withered head that seems to stand in metonymically throughout the movie for all the blood this feud will spill, and all endless violence occasioned by hate. Grendel attacks Heorot on the day of its building. He kills all who sleep there. This is after there’s a ceremony to protect it and give luck to Hrothgar, etc. Bad timing – particularly given that the ineffective ceremony is pagan, and Christianity is just beginning to come in amongst the Danes.
Next, enter the hero. Beowulf appears, being washed up on the shore after Breca and he are shipwrecked in a storm. The film’s wry humor becomes apparent. Beowulf lands and the man who discovers him finds out that the hero’s been swimming for three days, and asks – “do you do that often?” And that’s just the beginning. Throughout there are moments of humor that are surprising. I can’t recall more than a handful, but one hysterically funny moment would have to be when someone tells Beowulf that the Christian god never sleeps – and he replies “that’s just what we need, a god gone mad for lack of sleep.” Another great moment is when Stellan Skarsgard replies to the priest (Saint – I mean Father (!!) Brendan of Ireland, whose arrival on the scene was, albeit probably anachronistic, great fun), who has just told him that there was some sort of fire of heaven that would rain down, “if your heavens are on fire you better look to that.” Another prime moment: Beowulf : “I’m Beowulf.” Geatish warrior in his band: “Here we go again.”
Wealtheow was an undeniably strong woman, who slaps her grief-strickened husband to bring him to his senses. She supports him when he cannot open the feast because he is too drunk already. I was impressed. Stellan Skarsgard was also remarkable as Hrothgar. He’s one of my favorite actors, and he does very well in the role of a king in a masculine hall culture who feels himself weakened nearly beyond recovery by a foe he cannot fight. One of the strangest additions to the film is Selma, a witch who was brought to Hrothgar’s court by some guy whose epithet is “Three-Legs,” as his whore. She can see people’s deaths. She also (BIG SPOILER HERE) is the mother of Grendel’s child. Grendel took her one night – and after that protected her from the Danes who would come and rape her before that. She also sleeps with Beowulf after Grendel’s death. My first reaction was that this was irredeemably bizarre. Why add sex to Anglo-Saxon? This is Beowulf, not the riddles.
This addition, however, is key to the understanding of the movie that I came to by the time it was complete. Despite the closing assertion of the last paragraph, this movie is not Beowulf. It’s Beowulf and Grendel, and there’s something in that shared title that stands out in this film. Sarah Polley, as Selma, speaks to Beowulf after the death of Grendel, in the context of his grief for his fallen comrade – “Handscio's life had worth to you since you knew him. Others knew others.” Beowulf registers what she means “You mourn the troll.” Her next line is absolutely fraught: “I knew him.” Two different meanings, there, of course. But the point seems to come from the first part – “others knew others.” There are many outsiders in this film – Grendel and Selma are but the two most obvious. The one that comes slowly into sharper focus is Beowulf himself. He understands Grendel in a way that Hrothgar cannot – he can see that there is reason behind the attacks, and a sort of code, and it becomes clear to Beowulf, with Selma’s interpretation, that Grendel has language and that there is a method to his killings. The “monster” does not kill without cause. His attacks are to avenge his father. It makes one wonder what will happen to Grendel’s child. This could be the eternal feud, comparable to that inspired by the necklace of the Brosings. Or could there be an end in sight?
The movie draws a connection between the hero and the monster, one that has been pointed out in criticism but not in the same ways. They’re marginal. In the film, both are brought into fights they don’t ask for. That they do not understand fully. Grendel as a child. Beowulf as a hero. When asked what he’ll do now that all the Grendel family (except the child) are destroyed – Beowulf replies “I’m thinking I’ll likely go where I’m sent.” And we know that he will. He never becomes a king in this movie, but for those who know the story, he does – he goes on, he faces a dragon alone, he dies. There’s a moment in the movie, early on, where Wealtheow goes to Selma, and says that she could find a place for the witch “inside.” In this movie, it’s clear that those who are Outside, at least as outside is defined by those Inside, can never really come in. Others knew – and know -- others, and Gunnarson’s Beowulf is as much on the Outside, in the end, as the “monster” he fights.
With a breathtaking landscape and a musical score that had me close to tears at times, Beowulf and Grendel is not the poem I, and perhaps some of you readers, study or have studied. Yet I wonder if it’s not a certain aspect of that poem, refracted through time, to show a side of it the Old English did not, or could not, fully articulate. As Tolkien once said, the characters of the Anglo Saxon epic go forth to fight “the battle that ends for all, even kings and champions, in darkness.” In this movie, night comes down on monsters and heroes alike – and the withered remnants of their lives, like the enshrined head of Grendel’s dad, serve as stories for those who remain. It’s making sense of it that we must struggle with – and in the end it can only make sense for us at our moment. Beowulf and Grendel is, then, that rendering – one more chance for us to make sense of story of long ago. One more chance to see the “Outsider” in his many forms – and perhaps, if for only a moment, to go Outside our own fortressed thoughts to meet him.
EDIT: at Sarah Polley's website, you can download clips from the movie, including the scene I mentioned above. Scroll down from the page the link directs you to, and choose the scene "Others Knew Others." Absolutely haunting. I've corrected the dialogue above too, since I was a tad bit off at its start.