Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Beowulf & Grendel

Beowulf & Grendel was released in 2005 and stars Hringur Ingvarsson, Spencer Wilding, Stellan Skarsgård. This movie is a retelling of a very old English poem. It begins when the Danish king  Hrothgar chases down a troll for the crime of stealing a fish.  The troll and his son Grendal run until they reach a very high cliff.  The troll orders his son Grendal to hide when it is clear that there is no escape. Hrothgar makes quick work of the troll tossing his body off the cliff.  When he looks down he sees a very young Grendal but for some reason decides not to kill him.  Grendal later grows to be as large and fearsome as his father and begins attacking the Danes in vengeance.  Nothing Hrothgar does will provoke Grendal to fight him directly.  The warrior Beowulf arrives and vows to kill Grendal and though he follows through on his vow along the way he learns about how and who we choose to value.

Not being familiar with the poem, this movie served as an introduction to me.  Set at time when Christianity was beginning to invade, Beowulf & Grendal shows a world at sort of crossroads. At this point Hrothgar is ready for absolution and is willing to become baptized and worship the new god of Christ if that is what will bring him peace. Superstition and fear for their lives causes many of Hrothgar's people to make the choice to be baptized. Beowulf seems much more aware and is simply content to go along with the flow and follow the task ahead. 

Though there was a host of characters Beowulf and Grendal is essentially the confrontation between the two titled characters.  Each seeks understanding from each other and each works from a set of morals.  Though Grendal has been wronged, he initially refuses to harm Beowulf's men because he knows that they are not Danes.  He is only interested in seeking vengeance for the death of his father.  When Grendal finally does attack, he only kills the man who desecrated his father's remains.  Ingvar E. Sigurdsson who plays Grendal manages to display great emotion with simple face impressions. Beowulf knows that his task is to kill Grendal but the first opportunity he gets, Beowulf tells Grendal that if he does not leave the area that he will be killed. Beowulf quickly realizes that there is more to the story than he has been told and though he is set upon a task he cannot change, it's clear that it bothers him. 

There aren't very many women in this story.  The two that are named are Wealtheow, the wife of Hrothgar and Selma who is a social outcast and a witch. It is Wealtheow who tries to pull Hrothgar out of his depression and misery because of the murders committed by Grendel.  She forcefully reminds him that he is a king and asks if she should bury him where he lays wallowing and Wealtheow is fiercely loyal to her husband and her community. Unfortunately, Wealtheow is never realy developed beyond that point; the only time we see her in conversation with another woman is when she seeks out Selma to find out how Hrothgar is going to die.

From what I have read, Selma is an addition to the regular tale.  I am thankful for this because of the limited role that women would play in the story otherwise. Selma does not desire to be included in society and is instead content to live independently on the fringes of society.  Though she ha been assaulted many times, Selma refuses to see her self as a victim and when she does have sex with Grendal she does so on her own terms and quickly takes control of the situation by mounting him.  Selma essentially becomes Grendal's conscience, encouraging him to learn from where Hrothgar went wrong. My largest issue with Selma is that she comes to love Grendal though he clearly raped her.  Selma justifies this by saying that Grendal protected her from the villagers who sought to have their way with her (euphemism for rape) but just because Grendal protects her from being raped by others and only rapes her once (as though once isn't bad enough) should not have erased the harm he did to Selma.  The idea of a woman being sympathetic to her rapist is very problematic and screams of rape culture.

The final female character that we are introduced to is Grendal's mother the sea hag.  She is the very definition of the monstrous mother. The first time we become aware of her existence is when she tries to pull Beowulf from his ship. We only see her hand and are left to wonder what kind of creature she is.  It is not until Grendal dies and she arrives to seek vengeance do we see her full person. Unlike Grendal, she does not even make an unintelligible sound; she is simply the incarnation of maternal rage.  In the end, the sea hag is not able to defend her dead son's body and dies at the hand of Grendal; it is telling that of the three female characters that we meet, two of them end up being assaulted by Grendal.

Beowulf & Gremdal is a beautiful movie to watch.  It is full of panoramic scenes which are stark and haunting.  At times I did find Beowulf & Grendal a touch long and feel that at last fifteen minutes could have been cut from the film, while still leaving the story intact. We never really got a good explanation of what exactly the sea hag was.  As for Grendal himself, he read more like a throwback in our human genetic line than a troll. There were no POC, disabled or GLBT characters and to be honest I wasn't surprised given when the original poem was written.  I do however think that they could have done a lot more with the few female characters that we were given.  What would a more woman centric re-telling of this classic tale have looked like?