Sixth century Denmark, and the domain of King Hrothgar (Hopkins) is under attack from a hideous demon named Grendel (Crispin Glover). The heroic Beowulf (Winstone), a Geat warrior, arrives and vows to defeat Grendel.
When Robert Zemeckis announced, a few years back, that he was going to stop directing live-action and instead dedicate himself to performance/motion capture technology (where actors work on a bare soundstage, and are digitally painted over; it’s essentially rotoscoping’s flashy cousin), it was hard not to think that one of Hollywood’s finest was wasting his time and talent, fiddling with toys when he should be making ‘proper’ movies. It didn’t help that his first stab, 2004’s The Polar Express, was a saccharine affair, peopled by dead-eyed zombie-esque characters - even though it was sometimes visually ingenious. But with Beowulf, an astonishing, sumptuous 3D epic, it’s clear that Zemeckis, the great innovator, knew what he was doing all along. Bob, if you’re reading, we’re sorry we doubted you.
Beowulf is, simply, the finest example to date of the mo-capabilities of this new technique. A 2D version is on release, but we strongly suggest that you watch this wearing a pair of silly glasses. Previously, 3D movies were blurry, migraine-inducing affairs. Beowulf is a huge step forward, with a depth and clarity of vision that is deeply immersive, while Zemeckis largely resists the urge for gratuitous look-at-me compositions (only once, when a character flings coins at the camera, are we taken back to the gimmicky bad old days of Jaws 3D days) in favour of subtle choreography of action scenes that instantly embed you in the action.
The story of Beowulf - the oldest tale in the English language - inspired The Lord of the Rings, yet Zemeckis has fashioned a fantasy flick a world away from that scale. That’s not to say that there aren’t fantastic and hugely ambitious action scenes, the third act showdown between Beowulf and a vengeful dragon is the stuff of instant classics, starting with a truly clever reveal and then swooping, vertiginously, over treetops, through volleys of arrows, and into tumultuous surf. But, on the whole, Beowulf is a curiously intimate epic, largely confined to three locations, and focusing firmly on its title character.
Only mocap could turn the portly, 50-something Ray Winstone into a buff demigod and - in the third act, which takes place years later, and which is composed of muted colours and a near-tangible sense of loss, guilt and regret - a buff demigod with wrinkles and white hair. Zemeckis didn’t cast Winstone for his six-pack; he cast him for his gruff vulnerability. Although his Cockney accent initially seems incongruous as he bellows lines like ‘I will kill your mon-STAH!’ as if he were still hefting a sock filled with snooker balls, Winstone’s turn ultimately reveals a burgeoning humanity and poignant humility as Beowulf finally realises what it takes to be a true hero. It’s in this performance that you see why Zemeckis has flipped for mocap, it’s a technique that allows him to nourish the heart and soul of the audience, while overwhelming their eyes with indelible images.
Beowulf isn’t perfect. It’s at times too austere and po-faced, and while the likes of Hopkins as the tortured Hrothgar and Jolie, playing Grendel’s mother as a vengeful and excruciatingly sexy siren, lend Winstone admirable support, John Malkovich (as Beowulf’s human nemesis, Unferth) is so hammy that you begin to wonder why Zemeckis didn’t just capture someone else’s performance. But as a glimpse into the future of movies, Beowulf is just the beginning, and that’s incredibly exciting.
It's not a reinvention of the wheel, but it raises the bar for what James Cameron is planning with Avatar. And you'll be glad to know that the creepy dead eyes thing has been fixed.