I may be in the minority among high-def disc early adopters, but I was truly excited to watch 'Beowulf & Grendel.' A literary appetizer to Robert Zemeckis' just-released fantasy-soaked CG adaptation of "Beowulf," if anything I hoped this film would give me a shot at proving that the Bachelor's Degree I earned in Literature wasn't a complete waste of time and money.
Make no mistake, this 2005 European revisionist take on the classic Anglo-Saxon poem bears little resemblance to the Zemeckis film. Although both were inspired by one of the most famous literary epics of all time, director Sturla Gunnarsson ('Rare Birds,' 'Gerrie & Louise') and writer Andrew Rai Berzins set out to inject a dose of historical accuracy into the fantastical source in an attempt to explore the possibility that the story might have been based on actual events.
The story itself begins in the sixth century as a drunken Danish king named Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) finds his kingdom at the mercy of a murderous troll named Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson). The monster spends its evenings slipping into the king's Hall and slaughtering Hrothgar's fiercest soldiers. But all is not as it seems -- this "troll" is actually a man who witnessed Hrothgar's soldiers killing his father decades before. As Hrothgar's conflict with Grendel threatens to destroy all he's built, the king enlists the assistance of a warrior named Beowulf (Gerard Butler) to hunt down the blood-thirsty menace. With the help of dozen soldiers and an enigmatic witch (Sarah Polley), Beowulf works to uncover the motivations and weaknesses of his new opponent.
I'm a longtime fan of 'The Thirteenth Warrior' (another historical retelling of the legend of "Beowulf") and I found myself constantly comparing 'Beowulf & Grendel' to it. Sadly, Gunnarson's film leans heavily on the same interesting premise and concept, but ultimately collapses under the weight of its own ambition. The script has a tonal inconsistency that has the Danes muttering F-bombs one minute and speaking in soliloquies the next. The plot can't survive its weaker moments and I found myself cringing every time I should have been sinking deeper into the story. It doesn't help that the production itself appears to be a patchwork affair, held back (I can only assume) by a limited budget. The mountaintop sets are gorgeous, but some of the costuming and prosthetic effects are downright laughable. The problem is only accentuated in high definition, where the application points for Grendel's body hair, the seams in his mother's costume, and the plastic components on the costumes of supporting actors are all clearly visible.
Making matters worse, the filmmakers push historical accuracy to a fault, presenting a second act so mundane that it drags. Still, after establishing a convincing stark reality, 'Beowulf & Grendel' abandons its realism in the final moments of the film. Not unlike the similarly received 'King Arthur,' it would seem the filmmakers just couldn't resist inserting mystical elements into their "true" take on the story. I don't have a problem with fantasy, but watering it down into a dry framework such as this does a disservice to both the fantastical and realistic elements of the film. The director needed to pick his poison.
The acting is all over the place as well. I've never seen one performer so dispassionately suck the life of out of a film as instantaneously as Sarah Polley does here -- her witch speaks in a flat American accent and she sounds as if she's doing a creepy impersonation of Angelica Houston. Worse still, she acts as if she just woke up from a nap to stumble onto the set. To be charitable, it's possible that the filmmakers were trying to make her sound foreign and strange, but for me, the film took a turn for the worse every time she opened her mouth.
Still, despite these many issues, I personally ended up having a decent time watching 'Beowulf & Grendel.' There are still quite a few solid moments in the film, and I certainly appreciated its scope, realism, and expanded exploration of key relationships in the classic story. I was particularly happy with the performances from Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgard -- they develop a fascinating on-screen chemistry that feels honest and authentic. They're both in an entirely different league from the rest of the cast and they're the one aspect of 'Beowulf & Grendel' that outclasses 'The Thirteenth Warrior' in my opinion. At times, I found myself wishing I could strip away the rest of the film just to spend more time watching them discuss their sixth century world and the consequences of their actions. I also really enjoyed the way Butler developed Beowulf's growing curiosity and eventual investigation into Grendel's motives. Butler portrays the legendary warrior as a quiet who that knows his place in the world, and manifests the same intensity that made his portrayal of King Leonidas in '300' so spectacular.
In the end, 'Beowulf & Grendel' is a dry curiousity that's likely to only appeal to fans of classic literature and revisionist period pieces. Even fans of similar films like 'King Arthur' will probably feel this one lacks a certain spark. It may have a handful of strong points that saved the experience for me, but I doubt most will be as patient with its shortcomings. There's a great film buried in this one -- I only wish a more discerning filmmaker had been at the helm.
Like the film itself, the picture quality of this Blu-ray edition of 'Beowulf & Grendel' is somewhat hit-or-miss. Presented in 1080p with the AVC MPEG-4 codec, the transfer looks great in outdoor scenes that take place during the day. The palette may occasionally be washed out by the cloudy skies, but interior colors are strong and reds pop with confidence. Contrast is comfortably stark, on-screen fire looks amazing, and long landscape shots are a sight to behold. Taken as a whole, the image appears to be more stable and resolved than it does on the soft, blocky standard DVD. Likewise, detail often receives a huge boost -- facial imperfections are crisp, textures are nicely rendered, and natural elements like rocks and leaves are clearly defined.
Unfortunately, not every shot is as sharp as the transfer's standout moments. Some clarity issues can be attributed to the original print, but others are more bizarre. Watch the beginning of chapter 12 as the witch talks to Beowulf -- a smeary haze appears around the characters (particularly noticeable on Polley, since she's framed by darkness in the background). It almost looks like the director intentionally smeared vaseline across the camera lens, but the effect disappears before the end of the scene.
Black levels are inky for the most part, but fail to completely descend into darkness during many of the nighttime battle scenes. There's also a bit of digital noise that mars smaller details in Great Hall. More troublesome is a persistent reliance on the most obvious edge enhancement I've ever encountered on a high definition release, some light artifacting (watch the sand on the black beach in chapter 2), and a few instances of color banding in scenes cloaked by heavy fog. All in all, although this Blu-ray edition of 'Beowulf & Grendel' looks considerably better than its DVD counterpart, it pales in comparison to the strongest high-def disc releases.
Thankfully, the audio is better. 'Beowulf & Grendel' is largely a quiet, conversation-heavy film, but it features an impressive PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/16-Bit/4.6 Mbps) that easily bests the muffled Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (640 kbps) also included on the disc. Crisp dialogue is distributed cleanly across the front channels and is well-prioritized in the soundfield. Weapon impacts, grunts, and war cries gave me suitable chills and I had little problem immersing myself in the film's battle scenes. The surrounds are used sparingly, but really deliver when needed -- the ocean, the Great Hall, and the sea hag assaults showcase a rich sound design that considers the interior acoustics and exterior ambiance of most scenes. Even so, my favorite part of the audio experience was listening to the film's score pound through the soundfield. I only wish the LFE channel was utilized so confidently in the rest of the mix.
The only major downside to the audio track is that at times the source appears to be hindered by budgetary restrictions. Looped dialogue in particular often feels disjointed from the overall soundscape. Still, this track is reliable and features plenty of nice, standout moments. It isn't as memorable as other high definition audio packages, but it's better than average nonetheless.
To my disappointment, this Blu-ray edition of 'Beowulf & Grendel' doesn't include several features that originally appeared on the standard DVD. MIA is an extended preview of 'Wrath of Gods' (an award winning feature-length documentary that followed the troubled Icelandic shoot), a collection of deleted scenes, cast interviews, and a costume featurette. Here's what we do get:
Although it's not without merit, 'Beowulf & Grendel' is a problematic flick that struggles to define its identity. As a Blu-ray release, this one's also a mixed bag. A solid video transfer and an uncompressed PCM audio track easily best the standard DVD, but neither come close to the best high-def releases. And in a real puzzler, many of the special features that appeared on that earlier DVD edition are inexplicably missing here. All things considered, I wouldn't recommend this one as a blind buy, but if the subject matter sounds interesting to you, it's certainly rent-worthy.