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Cheap-looking special effects, a bland hero and barely any resemblance to the source material makes this Beowulf a flop, says Ed Power
Long before Game of Thrones, Beowulf was the lusty fantasy saga to rule them all. The Old English poem is one of the most revered in Western literature – but it's also a rollicking adventure, crammed with warriors, monsters and paroxysms of violence that make GoT look like a picnic.
So it is disappointing that many of the tale's darkly compelling elements have been dispensed with in ITV's £17 million, 13-part adaptation of the 8th-century epic. Perhaps the biggest letdown is Beowulf himself. The eponymous hero (Kieran Bew) was no longer a mysterious swordsman from across the seas but a bland hunk seeking to make peace with his adopted family following the death of his stepfather.
Complicating matters was the fact that Beowulf had been raised by Hrothgar, king – OK, "thane" – of the quasi-mythic, geographically unspecific "Shieldlands", and thus found himself plunged into a courtly intrigue upon returning to pay his final respects (the patriarch was portrayed in flashback by William Hurt in full twinkling greybeard mode).
Actually, "intrigue" is a wild overstatement. Viewers steeped in Game of Thrones’s vipers' pit of skulduggery will have found the machinations at Heorot Hall crushingly tedious, with Beowulf's slithering step-brother Slean (Downton Abbey’s Ed Speleers) plainly the untrustworthy villain and the usually excellent Joanne Whalley one dimensional as upstanding new ruler Rheda.
As is now obligatory for any self-respecting swords and sorcery romp, there were occasional flashes of heaving cleavage (none too explicit for the pre-watershed time slot). But the vast budget appeared to have been splurged mainly on grooming products for a magnificently bearded cast, while the special effects resembled something from a late Nineties action movie and were certainly insufficiently realistic to scare any children who happened to be watching.
Only in the final minutes were we introduced to the monstrous Grendel – re-imagined as a furrier version of Tolkien's craven anti-hero Gollum. He hissed and slithered around Heorot Hall, a spindly annoyance rather than the unstoppable abomination brought to life with vivid terror in the poem. However, the beast's motives were never explained and his presence felt entirely disconnected from the main thrust of the story, which focused on Beowulf's familial angst and potential romance with tomboyish healer Elvina (Laura Donnelly).
Judged as medieval soap opera, Beowulf delivered the occasional cheesy thrill. Yet it lacked the otherworldly flourishes and rich world-building of the source material – or of Game of Thrones for that matter. There was plenty of blockbuster sparkle here but little true magic.
what was the Beowulf piece of godrot? Return to the Shieldlands bore as much relation to the old English epic poem as would Tolstoy to a note for the postie. Quite why ITV chose this as a title is a mystery – actually it’s utterly not – they were hoping to cash in on a spurious Game of Thrones/ Tolkien/ Vikings vibe that might loosely be described as Saxonpunk without doing any of the work or betraying any understanding of what makes a hero or a story. Plenty of daffy names – Slean, Barghest, Hrothgar Healfdene also known as Thane of Heorot – but, and now here’s a singular thought, I truly don’t care! Everyone might as well be have been called Norbert Dentressangle or Gyppo McScoosh. On they scrabbled with Abrecan, the Huskarl, the Mud-Born. It is starting gently to grieve me that I briefly possess this information.
War and Peace’s budget came in at £28,000 a minute, and for that we got the river Neva resplendent with brigantines and windjammers, bejewelled wintry palaces in that subtle Farrow & Ball icy mustard so beloved of the Russkis, collars high enough to hide the stiffest of necks, and no matter that they ran out of sweeties before the battle scenes. Beowulf’s came in at a boggling £29,000 a minute, and for this they barely managed to slather everyone in mud and stick Gollum’s face on an outsize dust bunny. Expensive, ill-scripted bahookie
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