A 3,000-line epic poem which has been dated back as far as the 8th century, author unknown, and written in Anglo-Saxon English – Beowulf is not the most natural material for a Hollywood blockbuster. Most people who have attempted to plough their way through this dense work will testify to the fact that it is something of a fruitless chore, so the amount of fun I had with Robert Zemeckis' cutting-edge screen version came as a rather pleasant surprise. Zemeckis and screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman have wisely streamlined the story and have used motion-capture techniques to bring it to life in a visually remarkable way. All in all, they've made a better job of Beowulf than anyone could have imagined.
In a case like this, we can hardly have expected complete fidelity to the source material, but the core details of Beowulf remain the same in this adaptation. The film opens with scenes of celebration; a party is in full swing in a Danish mead hall, and the intoxicated King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is having a great time at the centre of it all. Some distance away, however, the grotesque monster Grendel (voiced with great pathos by Crispin Glover) seems to be suffering intense pain which is accentuated by the joyous sounds being carried on the wind. Eventually, he attacks, bursting into the mead hall with unstoppable force and turning its inhabitants into a pile of bloody corpses, although he stops short of killing the king himself. Enter Beowulf, looking every inch the Norse warrior with his long blonde locks and flawless physique. He's a fine figure of a man, to be sure, so who else could play him but our very own Ray Winstone?
That's the funny thing about this motion-capture business, you can cast people in the most unlikely roles and do whatever you like with them on screen. Winstone provides both the movements and the growly, cockney-tinged voice for the titular character, but the animated figure we see on screen is something very different. Zemeckis has gone down this road once before, with his dismal 2004 Christmas film The Polar Express – in which a gaggle of dead-eyed Tom Hanks clones did their level best to scare rather than cheer the intended audience – but these techniques appear to have advanced in considerable ways since that picture. Many people may question the validity of this filmmaking style, but it does allow Zemeckis to have the same actors playing characters over the span of fifty years, and it gives him the freedom to create a distinctive, richly detailed world which is realised through stunningly detailed animation.
It also allows him to bring a thrilling dynamism to the film's action sequences, recapturing some of the imagination and lightness of touch which made him one of the brightest directors of the 80's. After a carefully paced opening, in which the film seems to be finding its feet, Beowulf springs into life when Grendel attacks the mead hall, and the face-off between our hero and the monster is equally invigorating. In an odd twist, Beowulf decides to take on the beast unarmed and naked in order to make it an even contest (leading to plenty of amusing Austin Powers-style genital blocking) but the fight has a real sense of physicality about it, and throughout Beowulf the surprising amount of violence and implied sexuality pushes hard against the 12A rating. This particular battle ends in victory for Beowulf, after he has ripped Grendel's arm from his shoulder, and as a reward Hrothgar promises him the throne; but the monster's mysterious mother (Angelina Jolie) is hell-bent on revenge, and decades after the event Beowulf must face the ramifications of his actions.
Beowulf the movie diverges a little from Beowulf the text, with Gaiman and Avery drawing paternal links between a couple of characters, but these alterations help to shape the drama in a surprisingly satisfying way. At its heart, Beowulf's screenplay is on the simplistic side, but it does afford the central character an element of depth – emphasising his vainglorious personality and suggesting that it is ultimately his own lust for power and glory that proves to be his undoing – and in this respect Winstone proves to be an inspired choice for the role. The actor's best performances have always contrasted his physical strength with a core of emotional vulnerability, and he brings that quality to his vocal performance here. Most of the other actors – all of whom look pretty much the same on screen as they do in reality – are on-the-spot with their own contributions; John Malkovich is a slimy Unferth, Brendan Gleeson brings warmth and humour to his role as Beowulf's staunch ally Wiglaf, and Jolie vamps up a storm as the lizard-like seductress (the exception among this strong cast is Robin Wright Penn, seemingly an inexpressive actress in any medium).
So, Beowulf is a solid piece of entertainment, then, if hardly earth-shattering, but as a cinemagoing experience it is often breathtaking. Alongside its regular release Beowulf is being presented in 3-D, and when I saw the film – in its IMAX format – it struck me as the most impressive use of the technology yet. There's a genuine depth and lushness to the film's visuals, with Zemeckis taking every opportunity to hurtle his camera this way and that, and to pull the audience right into the spectacle. It's not quite the flawless, completely immersive experience the filmmakers may have been striving for – the images tend towards a slight blurriness at times, and the intensity of it left me with a slight headache – but it remains a hugely accomplished technical feat.
Will Beowulf be as impressive in a standard, 2-D cinema? I doubt it, but the question is moot. This is a film made to be seen in 3-D on the biggest screen you can find, a film to indulge in and to enjoy for what it is. The motion-capture still struggles to register subtle emotions, and its eye work is still hit-and-miss (which there's really no excuse for, when you think of the depth of feeling displayed in something like Peter Jackson's King Kong); but such nit-picking seems churlish when held against the overall experience the film offers, particularly in the final twenty minutes when it delivers a ridiculously exciting climax. After decades of failed attempts, today's filmmakers are finally finding the technology to make 3-D a viable cinematic tool, and with more directors dipping a toe in these uncharted waters – including James Cameron, whose forthcoming Avatar will be released solely in 3-D – the possibilities are fascinating. Beowulf is a grand slice of blockbuster entertainment, but the most exciting thing about it may be the future it heralds for cinema itself.