Not the more recent Beowulf movie scripted by Neil Gaiman, but a Canadian-Icelandic collaboration that seems to have circulated under the radar, with a final U. S. gross (in 2006) of just under seventy grand.
It’s all Thor’s fault. I mean the Marvel Entertainment Thor movie, a delightful farrago of top-drawer bullshit with a hell of a fine muscular specimen (Chris Hemsworth) in the title role. It has about as much to do with Norse mythology as most televangelists have to do with Christianity, but go see it anyway if you are up for lots of special effects, plus acting (Anthony Hopkins), writing (J. Michael Straczynski) and directing (Kenneth Branagh) far above the level of the concept. I Googled “Chris Hemsworth workout” when I found myself still wanting triceps like Thor a day later, and ended up on one of those pages that won’t let you leave, opening up a relentless series of little dialog boxes, like an old porn site. I may have been the only woman who did this.
Anyway a supporting cast member caught my eye — Stellan Skarsgard, portraying a scientist of middle years who introduces the earth-bound Thor to the art of drinking boilermakers (“We drank. We fought. He made his ancestors proud,” says Thor, fireman-carrying him home a few hours later). Who was this seasoned actor with the conspicuously Scandinavian name, right at home even in a bastardized story about Norse gods? I got curious and found he had been in plenty of well known films — and then there was Beowulf and Grendel.
It’s not your mom’s Beowulf, or even John Gardner‘s — thank God; my ass couldn’t sit in front of a screen for that much postmodern rumination. I suppose it does qualify as postmodern. There is no fantasy medieval opulence about it, no certainty, but the film has a ruthless plausibility, once you accept a semi-human race — or familial remnant, at least — living at the crudest imaginable level and able to toss armed warriors around like Chihuahuas.
It makes an old literature major like me dust off.
What a deal hast uttered, dear my Unferth,
drunken with beer, of Breca now,
told of his triumph! Truth I claim it,
that I had more of might in the sea
than any man else, more ocean-endurance.
Beowulf bend low, peers along the water’s edge. He climbs down into the water.
BEOWULF: Cave doesn’t end here. There’s flow from the other side.
BRECA: I’ll go.
BEOWULF (shakes his head): You can’t swim for shit.
Well, it’s about like fighting men actually talk.
Skarsgard is Hrothgar, the king whose realm — it looks like a rural county of English sheepcotes — is being ravaged beyond endurance by the troll Grendel. (“Why? It’s a fucking troll. It does what trolls do.”) You know the rest: Beowulf shows up, a hero with a blood-bond to Hrothgar, pledges to put an end to the creature’s habit of entering the great hall (it looks like a tractor barn) and tearing a few thegns in half, then booking. Grendel loses an arm. General rejoicing. Everyone forgets that even trolls and monsters have mammas. Oops.
I will only hint at the rest: casting the bones, Hrothgar’s mead-raddled liver, a Christian monk trying to spin the situation, even (MoR, I am not making this up) a red-headed witch who knows how (though not when) folk will die. Grendel speaks Old Norse.
BEOWULF: Grendel. What sort of name —
SELMA: Means “grinder.”
BEOWULF: Of bones?
SELMA: Of teeth. He was born with bad dreams.
Interestingly, nowhere on the film’s website is there a good picture of Grendel’s Mamma. I think she frightened even the people who decided to show her to us.
She inspired me so much I benched a pair of forty-fives for a triple. Thor, Schmor.