Saga’s spirit evades capture
OST people are probably familiar with the Norse saga of Beowulf, the legendary hero who slew the dreadful monster Grendel at the beginning of the 6th century. Robert Zemeckis, director of the Back to the Future trilogy and Forrest Gump, among other box- office blockbusters, admits that he didn’t respond positively to the ancient poem when he read it at school, but a full- blooded ( in every sense) screenplay by Roger Avary ( of Pulp Fiction fame) and Neil Gaiman convinced him that the material could make a successful action film.
The most recent film Zemeckis directed before this was the execrable The Polar Express , for which he pioneered the performance- capture technique, a complicated process in which actors have, to quote the film’s press book, ‘‘ a myriad digital sensors attached to their faces and bodies, via a form- fitting Lycra suit, so that ( their) live performances are captured, to be input into computers’’. What this means in practice is that the resulting film is animated but with a level of realism regular animated films can’t approach. It also means that the actors sometimes look as if they’re made of plastic; they certainly never look like flesh- and- blood human beings.
I can’t see the point of the process, but in this instance it’s been enhanced by the use of state- ofthe- art three- dimension technology, which allows for spears, axes, arrows, stones and buckets of blood to be hurled out of the screen at the audience. ( The film is also being screened in 2- D and in IMAX 3- D, so readers would be advised to check on the system available at their cinema.)
Some of the actors in Beowulf are instantly recognisable. They include Anthony Hopkins as the ageing King Hrothgar, whose indiscretion years earlier with a beautiful demon has resulted in the insatiable monster, Grendel; and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s voluptuous mother, a naked denizen of a waterlogged cave who is so beautiful, no man, it seems, can resist her. These characters look and sound like who they are: Beowulf sounds like Ray Winstone, but the strong, slim, muscular hero on screen would never be mistaken for the British actor; and nor would I have recognised John Malkovich’s devious Unferth, a character who is established as though he will play a key role in the drama but who, in the end, never does.
The film is about as violent as an M rating will permit, but it is desperately coy in other respects. It’s true that we see a very great deal of Jolie, or her captured facsimile. But in the long sequence in which a completely naked Beowulf battles Grendel, Zemeckis goes to almost fatuous lengths to prevent any glimpse of his private parts; as a result this sequence looks like a parody of Hollywood at its most sanctimonious.
My memories of the original legend aren’t very vivid, but this unfolding of the saga looks and feels more Hollywood than ancient Scandinavia, which is probably no surprise. The characters, not helped by the capture technique, are all wooden, and the storytelling lacks a feeling for this magical, mystical world. But in the action scenes, and especially in the 3- D version, the film comes into its own, and Beowulf’s climactic battle with a fire- breathing dragon — his son, as it turns out — is wonderfully realised.
The 3- D technique has come a long way since the 1950s, when we wore red and green plastic glasses to have a lion leap into our laps ( Bwana Devil ) or a scarred Vincent Price threaten us ( House of Wax). You still have to wear glasses, supplied at the cinema, but there’s no strain involved and the results are, quite simply, breathtaking.
* * * THERE couldn’t be a wider gap between the ( presumably) vast budget of Beowulf and the certainly minuscule budget of the shot- on- video Boxing Day . This is an experimental feature film, but it’s not as incomprehensible as David Lynch’s latest. Director and cameraman Kriv Stenders shot the 80- minute drama in real time and in what looks like a single take.
This kind of experiment was famously attempted by Alfred Hitchcock for Rope in 1948, but Hitch was shooting on 35mm film and every 10 minutes he had to disguise, sometimes rather clumsily, a cut because the camera had to be loaded with a new reel.
Stenders had no such restriction because ( as Alexander Sokurov proved with Russian Ark ) video cameras can photograph a feature- length film without a break. However, there were, apparently, 12 separate shots in the film, so seamlessly edited together that I only spotted one of them, and only because I was looking for it.
The action takes place in and around an ordinary suburban house in an average Australian city on the day after Christmas. Chris ( Richard Green), recently out of prison and on probation, has prepared a meal for his daughter ( Misty Sparrow), his wife ( Tammy Anderson) and his wife’s new lover ( Syd Brisbane); he is also visited by his sympathetic parole officer ( Catriona Hadden) and an old criminal associate ( Stuart Clark). The dialogue was all improvised around a story outline written by Stenders and Green, and the plot development feels as authentic as it is at times confronting.
Despite the relatively short running time, it takes a while for the real drama of this grim little tale to surface. When it does, the performances by Green and Sparrow ensure that the film is essential viewing for lovers of fine Australian drama. Congratulations to all concerned and to the Adelaide Film Festival for funding this gutsy little slice of life.
Chip off the old block: The hero’s past comes back to bite him in a scene from Beowulf