This is by no means the first fantasy starring Gerard Butler that I’ve enjoyed but I think it’s the first I’ve seen on screen.
My Good-Bad Film Club companion Liz adores Game of Thrones, and Beowulf & Grendel – which came out in 2005 – is surely its precursor. I’m always behind the zeitgeist and it took me until 2017 to watch the first two episodes of GoT, which seemed to be mostly boobs and beheadings; B&G has plenty of beheadings but no boobs. Thank god for progress, that’s all I can say.
There’s lots of fighting, though mostly it’s just small groups of warriors chopping off heads and then carousing while wrapped in smelly blankets; and for tribes of feared warriors they only seem to possess one longboat.
This is a stripped-back legend and the film is none the worse for all that. Though Liz and I both wrote our dissertations on the epic Old English poem on which it’s based (ha not really, we’ve never read it), neither of us knew anything about this adaptation; we both thoroughly enjoyed it, and not in an ironic way. It’s exciting, and unlike many epics it never feels like it’s trundling on for several centuries. You also have to admire everyone for giving it their all in what looks like a watery apocalypse.
The weather is terrible and everyone looks completely freezing the whole time. There’s even a documentary called Wrath of Gods about the terrible luck that befell director Sturla Gunnarsson, cast and crew while making the film, which I haven’t seen, though from what I’ve heard Odin wasn’t best pleased at their shenanigans.
Despite the driving rain and wind, the film looks gorgeous (it was mostly filmed in Iceland), though it’s best watched in front of a roaring fire with a selection of whiskies to hand, while wearing something cosy yet hideously expensive from a Hygge boutique run by two posh ladies in Marylebone.
You don’t even need to be able to follow the story to enjoy it, though I’ll tell you what happens: it’s 6th century Scandinavia and Danish King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård) kills Grendel’s father, a giant troll – chasing him down as he tries to escape with little Grendel.
Little Grendel has a blond beard and whiskers, and I’ve not seen such a hairy kid since Michael J Fox in Teen Wolf back in 1985.
Dad is shot with arrows then encircled with burning tar, before he falls off the cliff onto the beach below. Grendel chops off the head to keep him company in his lonely cave; by the time he’s a man, the head has got so leathery it resembles Wilson from Cast Away, though it lacks that volleyball’s contemplative demeanour.
Grown-up Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson, rather moving) is still very angry about his dad, and after the Danes build a new mead hall he breaks in and kills a load of them.
Who better to track him down and punish him than legendary Geatland warrior Beowulf? He’s so famous someone wrote a long poem about him, and he’s so handsome he has to be played by Gerard Butler.
We first see him returning home to Geatland, emerging from a freezing sea: “we were hunting walruses…this storm came up and ate our boat!”, he tells the surprised and surprisingly Yorkshire fisherman he finds there.
Beowulf is hardcore, but also given to playing down and mocking his own myth, even though he’s known as the Sword-Wolf, which is funny as Liz and I have been calling Gerry that for years.
This is one of those Scandinavian epics presumably made with cross-European money, as the accents are all over the shop. Though at least they all fit into that generally acceptable “northern” twang for any film featuring Thanes, Danes or Vikings (likewise “miscellaneous Eastern European” for all Dracula movies). Gerard Butler gets to sound Scottish, you’ll all be pleased to know.
It’s misty but not mystical. Okay, Grendel is a giant troll, but he looks like a big hairy person in moon boots. He does have a Sea Hag for a mother, and there’s a seer called Selma (played with an American accent by Sarah Polley) – but that’s it. Even Eurovision Song Contest had murderous elves!
Everyone’s hair is matted and plaited; Selma looks like she’s escaped from Haysi Fantayzee. Okay not everyone’s hair: Beowulf’s locks are dazzling, soft and curly, as if they’ve been washed in the spit of virgins.
This is a morality tale, with Beowulf soon understanding that Grendel is only killing those who have wronged him; he has no argument with anyone else and is only seeking to put right a great wrong.
You could argue that first Grendel needs to right a wrong too, and replace the fish his dad stole which started this whole saga.
All I can say is, I hope it was a fucking great white shark for all the trouble it caused. Though it’s not, considering history, a particularly daft reason – several genuine wars between nations have been fought over just such inconsequalities.
The film is also quite witty, especially when the badly-behaved Danes go through all their sins (mostly sex-related) and discover from visiting Irish monk Father Brendan (Eddie Marsan) that yes, a Christian God forgives those, too. (Like all good salesmen signing up recruits for a pyramid selling scheme, Brendan avoids the proselytising obligations and sticks to the personal benefits coming their way.)
For while this is a battle between old and new – a troll hasn’t been spotted for 20 years – this is also a battle between religions, and here it’s the Danes stuck in the old ways. Brendan brings baptisms in rivers, probably the coldest on record, and freedom from guilt.
It is Beowulf who expresses the most Christian of sentiments though, when it comes to his understanding of, and consideration for, Grendel. (At the end, as Beowulf’s longboat sails away, Beowulf is still firmly planted in the local ways: “By Odin’s will!” he cries. “Let us find our way home!” chant his men in reply.)
Liz and I both felt sorry for Grendel, at exactly the same time as well. He’s lonely, spending his days playing bowls with human heads, a situation you may identify with if you grew up in the ’70s and had to make your own fun.
I won’t lie, Grendel is pretty murderous, though he kills only in response. And the Danes keep making it worse. Hondscioh (Tony Curran) smashes up Grendel’s dad’s head, so Grendel returns at night to exact his revenge.
This time he’s no match for Beowulf, who traps him hanging outside the hall by his arm, which the troll cuts off to escape before staggering to the sea to die. His mother the Sea Hag claims his body; Beowulf finds it in a hidden cave of skulls, then kills her, but leaves Grendel’s young son, Baby Haysi Fantayzee, alive.
Selma can see the future but can’t change it: “I know how you die,” she tells Beowulf, which is some chat up line but also works, as they do spend the night together under a smelly blanket. Before he leaves for Geatland with his warriors he returns to warn her to hide her son from the Danes, and builds a cairn to Grendel.
Skarsgard is great, his Hrothgar falling into introspection and melancholy after the first massacre. Butler is charismatic and much more interesting an action star than in his later films, never once stabbing anyone in the head.
I couldn’t work out who all the other Danes were, besides the one played by Tony Curran and that’s only because I follow him on Instagram; though there are plenty of interesting-sounding characters we never even meet.
Who could resist Sigge the Skullsplitter, who shagged a walrus, then a rabbit, but got stuck in the rabbit? And where’s the epic poem about him?
The Good-Bad Film Club rating
Yes you should feed the trolls – Beowulf & Grendel is Good-Good.
We watched Beowulf & Grendel on Amazon Prime. You can find it here: