I went and saw Beowulf today (in 3D, zomg! More movies should jump out of the screen at you and try to poke you in the face, for serious). Now, here’s the thing – I am a big fan of the poem. I am of Scandinavian descent myself (though the poem itself is not, the story is, and I’ve always been interested in it), I love me some alliteration and kennings, and Beowulf is on the same manuscript as the Old English Judith, which I spent about a year obsessively comparing to other versions of Judith when I was in college, and thus feel a profound connection to.
The point I’m circuitously driving at is this: I am quite familiar with the original source text, and let me tell you – it is a not-at-all-surprisingly sexist product of a profoundly sexist culture.
I knew that the new Beowulf film was going to have some major deviations from the Old English poem, but what I’d seen in the previews did not make me think it would be less sexist. Sexy, sexy danger in the form of a nekkid-and-high-heeled Angelina Jolie (if she’s able to change form and all that good stuff, why heels?) crooning huskily at the hero was not encouraging.
I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong – the bulk of the characters in the film are pretty damn sexist. There’s much cheerful talk of despoiling virgins, etc., and the female character with the most face time (Wealthow, capably voiced by Robin Wright Penn) is explicitly equated with an object by her husband(s).
But even as Hrothgar is likening his wife to his treasured golden drinking-horn, the film itself is making it clear that Wealthow is not an object. The camera follows her, focusing alternately on her face and the action around her, making her the audience’s guide into the film. We see (and share) her emotions. She’s extremely sympathetic, and as fully fleshed-out as any of the other supporting players in Beowulf’s story.
Later in the film, we see that Wealthow is compassionate and wise as she deals gracefully with her second husband’s young lover, and we see that both women, while not trained as warriors, are brave and reasonably quick-thinking in a crisis.
The culture portrayed in Beowulf is sexist, but I think the film manages, for the most part, not to be. It pretty much fails the Bechdel Test, and the character of Grendel’s Mother is problematic, particularly in her visual representation, but the human women in the movie are portrayed in a respectful way, even though the story stays true to the culture and time in which it is set.
Hey, it turns out that it’s possible to portray female characters with some depth and humanity and treat them respectfully as a creator even in historically-based settings of profound sexism and misogyny!
I’d like to see a lot more of that. Also, more 3D.