Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands, Season, Episode One:

Beowulf is based on an epic 3,000 line old English poem. In the source material, Beowulf is the hero who battles a monster named Grendel, Grendel's mother and a dragon.  Obviously for the sake of television this already long poem is going to be drawn out.

The opening theme quite disappointingly is quite reminiscent of The Game of Thrones.  Given the age of this epic saga, it absolutely has no need to play upon the popularity of The Game of Thrones.  It should be able to stand on its own. Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands begins with Beowulf travelling with Breca to see king Hrothgar, only to learn that Hrothgar is deceased and that he will not be allowed to see the body.  I must admit to the shock that Hrothgar died so early, particularly because he was played by William Hurt.

King Hrothgar's death does however serve to provide the fuel in the political situation.  It seems, having decided that his son Slean is not up to the job, Hrothgar chose Rheda to succeed him.  It's clearl early on that there is tension between Slean and Beowulf largely because Slean is positioned the lesser man.  Both are sons of Hrothgar but only Beowulf knows this truth of this and if that were not enough, Beowulf is also the better fighter.  For Slean, Hrothgar represents a challenge to what he sees as his birthright and like a conniving little weasel that he is, much of Slean's inferiority is covered by Rheda.  It does however make me wonder if they will move away from the original story and have Beowulf battle Rheda in revenge for his murder of Slean, who I already think needs to die? Even Rheda however is quick to bend when Beowulf returns after injuring the troll/Grendal. If nothing else, it's clear that things are going to come to head between Beowulf and Slean, particularly now that Beowulf, hero that he is, has saved Elvina from the troll, whom I assume to be Grendal.

What I did find interesting about the troll, is that it wasn't mindless. It clearly captures Elvina in search of a mate of sorts and has feelings for her. Unfortunately it had me thinking of King Kong which is not what I should have been thinking about during Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. I do however hope that the character of the troll/Grendal will be developed as the story goes on. I want to see that he has motivation for actions, rather than acting on instinct alone.

Because of the familial tone that Beowulf: Return To the Shieldlands has taken, it has changed Beowulf from a mysterious stranger, to someone who is working out his daddy issues and trying to figure out where he belongs in the Shieldland.  I'm not sure that I like the change or that Kieran Bew pulls off the role of Beowulf. If anything, Beowulf feels like a poor man's John Snow which is the opposite of how Beowulf should read. Beowulf should be about the battles he has because he is a legendary hero and not the angsty relationship drama that ITV has decided to introduce.

Thus far, I love the prominent roles that women are playing in Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands. Rheda is will aware that her appointment as Thane is unusual but she intends to rule, though she is technically a place holder until Slean is ready for power.   It is however worth noting that Beowulf does take the time to point out that women have lead before, just not as openly as Rheda does now.  I suppose this is a less than subtle comment about the rigid gender roles and patriarchal nature of the society of the time.

Then there's Elvena, who is set up as the damsel in distress.  If that had been all Elvena had been given to do this episode, I would have found it disappointing but typical. Elvena is a no nonsense physician and lover to Slean. Unfortunately, it does seem that ITV is setting us up for a pissing contest between Beowulf and Slean over Elvena.  I hope that she makes it clear that she will not become some toy in a game of boys and instead will assert her own wishes.

Then there's Vishka  and Lila, who are blacksmiths.  I love the way that Lila turns around being judged on appearance by Breca.  With no man in their lives, they have had to be exceedingly tough and they don't trust easily.  Breca does find himself married to Vishka after she propositions him at Hrothgar's funeral feast  but it's already clear that despite the fact that Breca is always ready with a funny quip, it is Vishka who will be be the boss in whatever interaction they have.  It's also worth noting that both Vishka and Lila are women of colour.  I hope that as the story goes forward, they will have substantial roles to play.

Finally we come to LGBT representation - there are none.  In the opening scenes, I was hoping that Breca and Beowulf would turn out to be a couple. Yeah I know but they so reminded me of Xena and Gabriel and besides,  in the original poem, Beowulf's sexuality is not explicit. It would have been nice to see some real LGBT inclusion in this genre that isn't ridiculous. Unfortunately, very quickly we see Breca and Beowulf seek out women and that dream died before it even lived.  I know that there are those who would feel that it would be changing a very old story but given the fact that ITV has already done so, I don't see why adding a LGBT character or making Beowulf a GLBT protagonist wouldn't have been a positive.  It certainly would have been more interesting than having two brothers prepare to have a problem over a woman or power.

It's clear that ITV spent a lot of money on this 13 episode mini series.  I must say that I was somewhat impressed given that this is for television.  I'm not sure that I am sold on any of the actors. Most of the them feel oddly wooden, as though they are feeling out their roles.  Slean in particular was simply a card board cut out - the kind of character who has appeared again and again in this sort of drama.  Also, I would appreciate it if we could lose some of the eyeliner for dramatic effect please. It's a distraction at best and laughable at worst.  In the end, I don't know if Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands will be as epic as the original poem, or even as much as ITV hopes, but I do know that for it to even begin to meet its charge, its got to move away from its dependence on special effects and really build its characters into something. If we (read: the audience) don't come to care or root for Beowulf and quickly at that, this series is lost.