Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and 'Pulp Fiction' screenwriter Roger Avary, 'Beowulf' is on the one hand a striking visual achievement, and on the other an unhappy conflagration of gore and juvenility.
Those expecting to see a faithful version of the poem should know that this 'Beowulf' is very much an interpretation; the writers have made extensive changes to the story as contained in the manuscript. While the poem contains plenty of bone crunching violence, it has little or nothing to say on the subject of sex. This film is surprisingly revealing, and there are extensive sexual references. The 12A cert it has been given by the censor is not appropriate.
As lead actress Angelina Jolie put it: "I actually had to call home (to her children) after I saw the film and explain that the fun little movie I had done was in fact a little different from what we were expecting."
In any case, this 'Beowulf' is set in the 6th century AD, and takes place for the most part in and around Heorot, home of the Danes (who, as in the poem, live in England). They appear happy and prosperous, but all is not well. Unfortunately, as the Danes enjoy nothing more than a good session in the mead hall, they are liable to be terrorised by a monster - the gruesome and violent Grendel (Glover) - whenever the fun gets out of hand. Based on some of his table throwing and body slamming antics, this Grendel must have had a 'WWE: Early Medieval Mayhem!!!!!' on DVD back at the lair. For whatever reason, he has an eye for the spectacular and a penchant for the grisly.
Hrothgar (Hopkins), the Danish King, is not able to kill the monster himself and so he puts out the call for a hero, along with a promise of a large wedge of treasure once business is taken care of. Hearing of the reward, Beowulf (Winstone), leader of the Geats, heads for Heorot. A variety of battles - Beowulf v Grendel, Beowulf v the sea monsters, Beowulf v the dragon - take up quite a lot of the rest of the slightly overlong 113 minutes. Some of these are exciting - albeit sometimes only in the sense that a severe shock induced by ear splitting screeching qualifies as excitement - and the battle between Beowulf and a dragon is undeniably spectacular.
Minor characters break up the battling and bring a bit of texture to proceedings: the sly and malevolent Unferth (Malkovich) is perhaps the best of them, while Brendan Gleeson's Wiglaf is a successfully solid sidekick for the hero. Winstone's voicing performance in the lead role is tricky and ultimately not a great success. The character of Beowulf is essentially a blond beefcake/himbo, and the necessary charisma isn't present in either the voice or the look. Jolie (unsurprisingly!) manages the sultry temptress role with ease, while Hopkins is similarly unchallenged by the doddering elder statesman-ing needed for Hrothgar.
All in all, as a film, it's a bit gross but not that bad.
Which brings us to the aforementioned technological wizardry. Beowulf makes use of 'performance capture', a technique pioneered by Zemeckis in 'Polar Express'. There is a depth and realism to its 3D that is most impressive: through special glasses, objects and environments become almost hyper-real, and the viewer is treated to some highly impressive visual trickery. It must be said that the human characters are disappointing: the 'acting' is understandably wooden and the movements stilted. But aside from that the visual effects are stunning and - despite the gore and a rather weak script, particularly in light of the richness of the source material - almost worth seeing for their own sake.