Saga’s spirit evades cap­ture

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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