A potentially interesting, revisionist retelling of the Beowulf myth suffers from its uneven execution – the film doesn’t pull itself together thematically until the third act, which may be too long to wait. Much of the film drags along due to poor pacing -- there is very little, but much needed, action while it takes over an hour to develop a strong philosophical core.
Grendel, the formless monster of the epic poem, is here humanized, or rather troll-ized; that is, the filmmakers set out to make him a complex character with real motivations. By doing so they ultimately make a powerful, and aptly timed, statement about the nature of violence and war. When Beowulf finally slays the murderous Grendel, the act carries no pretensions of heroism.
The film is a bit vulgar, though no necessarily offensively so, in its violence, sexuality (even Grendel is given a sex-scene) and anachronistic use of strong language. The visuals, from the locations to the costume and set design to Jan Kiesser’s cinematography, are impressive; an impressive visual sense alone, however, does not a good film make.
Gerard Butler, as Beowulf, and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as Grendel, both perform well, but it’s Stellan Skarsgård in a supporting role as the Dane King who steals every scene that he’s in. Sarah Polley, on the other hand, as the resident village witch sticks out like a digital wristwatch and ruins every scene she appears in.
Director Sturla Gunnarrson tried to make an Icelandic, Middle Ages A History of Violence, but despite a strong cast, crew and concept can’t cohere it together into the great film it could have possibly been.