Whatever I was expecting from Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 CGI mo-cap interpretation of the ancient Anglo-Saxon classic, Beowulf was a complete surprise. It might share technology with The Polar Express,  but this is no children’s fantasy. It carries a hard ’12’ rating – as bloody and unsettling as The Dark Knight – but its pitch as a grown-up type of monster tale is mostly carried by its themes.

The first thing to say about the film is that it looks absolutely gorgeous. Video games – even cutscenes – are years away from this fidelity. Subtle expressions are conveyed as meticulously as Gollum in LOTR, though it doesn’t have quite that level of photorealism. Even so, it’s enough for the actors to deliver the performance, and what a fine cast we have here.

Anthony Hopkins is King Hrothgar, whose mead hall revelries are interrupted by monster Grendel (Back to the Future‘s Crispin Glover), who kills pretty much everyone. To his aid comes the near-unrecogniseable Ray Winstone, looking 30 years younger as the titular hero, Beowulf. “I will kill your monster,” he declares, before tearing off Grendel’s arm with his bare hands.

Told you it was bloody.

The old king’s pretty impressed by this, and his sidekick Unferth (John Malkovich) is bloody astonished.

Not so pleased is Grendel’s mother, Angelina Jolie, who kills pretty much everyone who wasn’t killed the first time around. Beowulf vows to get his revenge, and here the film deviates from the 8th century poem. Beowulf and Hrothgar are given flaws, and Grendel’s mum is given a makeover.

Boewulf Angelina Jolie

I won’t spoil the film for you by telling you what happens next, but what follows is an interesting study of guilt and redemption, with superb performances from all including Robin Wright Penn, Alison Lohman (Drag Me To Hell) and Brendan Gleeson.

The script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary brings an ancient culture to life, complete with its blend of religions, customs and values, but never lets it feel weighted or forced. Characters are given motivation and their actions explanation. We are critical of the heroes and sympathetic to the villains, without ever forgetting which is which.

The $150 million budget is put to good use, with some spectacular action setpieces. The film’s development – originally intended as live action – was delayed because they didn’t have the budget or the capacity to record scenes like this. Freed from such restrictions, we have action scenes that feel like part of a real film – in contrast to many live-action films with obvious CGI setpieces.

In short, it’s a bloody good film.

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