Stay home with me / You are the reason I am here

tfw your favourite band’s lyrics echo one of your favourite quotes, from one of your favourite books, that you first read on the Megabus north, when going to see that band over ten years ago…

People who never doubt
Are the ones I’m worried about
People who never doubt
Are the ones who carry the clout.

Maxïmo Park – The Reason I Am Here

“The ones who are not afraid are those who don’t know anything, aren’t they? They have no inkling of the values which must not be harmed, the threads which must not be broken, the threads which will link people together, threads which will bind together each link in the chain of generations. Those who do know this become cautious, afraid of doing any harm. They’re circles, aren’t they? There are those who trample under foot, tear down. Those who have an inkling of eternal values, of a higher meaning, become afraid; they proceed cautiously, they are sensitive and respect the richness of existence. They seek it out.”

Ketil Bjørnstad – The Story of Edvard Munch

1280px-edvard_munch_-_the_girls_on_the_bridge2c_hamburger_kunsthalle_28190129
Edvard Munch – The Girls on a Bridge (1901, Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

Advertisements

Review: Risk to Exist (2017), Maxïmo Park

asp-orig-6

It’s 2004, it’s 2am and I don’t really know what I just heard, but I’m pretty sure I’m in love. Something under two minutes just blasted out of the radio and made a mockery of my idea that listening to it would help me sleep. A Northern accent, deranged with the memory of uncontrolled nights dancing and drinking; too many words for the already agitated beat; wild-eyed and frantic all the way through. I’d just heard ‘The Night I Lost My Head’ and it was like the primal part of my being had been given language for the first time.

~ What equals love? Well I don’t know, but I think it’s trust ~

Last weekend I got back late from a conference abroad and had to be out of the house a few hours later for a full day’s shift in a library in the city. Risk to Exist had arrived in my absence. I cranked up the car radio (yes, I put a CD in the car and played the CD. It may as well still be 2004), and I fell in love ten times over all over again, as yet again this band reached into my chest and pulled everything inside out.

Compromise is not a sin, but you’d better not make a habit of it ~

This is an album about love and language and feelings (like many a Maxïmo Park album) but here the sentiment reaches beyond awkward teenage emotions and canny expressions of frustrated romance, and a clarion cry for human compassion emerges. I knew they were political; that was plain from their stage chatter at the last few gigs I saw; and then the single ‘Risk to Exist’ came out (well actually, I heard it last summer at the Times Square gig), and at first I lamented that a song so blatantly inspired by the refugee crisis came out with no mention of charity donations … and then they announced the MOAS collaboration. And the album just gets blunter and blunter, until peak irony is reached with the line ‘I’m angry but I’m not explicit, the message was there but you blinked and you missed it’. No chance of missing the messages here!

~ What’s left for me? If everybody’s turning right… ~

Musically, the brass sections and backing vocals are a new touch, and I get the impression they’ve been revisiting a lot of Prince since his death. In this album you can hear — clearer than ever before — Paul Smith’s Stevie Wonder-belting karaoke persona, with falsettos and ‘ooh-oohs’ thrown in with clinically precise abandon. It’s full of perfect, summery pop anthems; they just happen to be anthems suitable for a summer in which we’re being subjected to another election, at which we’re expected to behave like obedient little children and give Mother May her mandate for fucking us over however which way she fancies.

~ I won’t be put in my place ~

17-year-old me was not the queen of good decisions, that’s fair to say. But boy oh boy, she got this one right. Bar a brief blip with the second album, the loves of my life have only improved record by record,(1) and Risk to Exist doesn’t change that. Heart-bursting joy is what I felt listening to this new album, and it’s so damned catchy that they joy will stay with you, even with the anger, frustration and disgust at current politics. Above all, it’s still love that drives their music, and in love that they look for solutions. For all the angst, they’re still hopeful, still calling for us to ‘show some empathy’, and I’m so grateful they’re still here, still making music that speaks for those of us who are perpetually caught between existential dread and a fierce joy in living.(2)


(1) I love a lot of tracks on Our Earthy Pleasures, and to a degree my problem may be that I’ve grown up with each of their albums fulfilling my emotional needs at the time they came out. It’s just that this one came out when I was having my messiest undergraduate phase…

(2) And someone once had the cheek to say to me ‘I never imagined them as a band to inspire such loyalty’! How very dare.

Review: Hysteria (2011)

hysteria-film-5

My, those Victorians, what an odd bunch. With such a familiar starting point, and a cast like this one (everyone’s in it. Everyone. It’s one of those British movies that just has all the people in it), you know what to expect. Maggie Gyllenhaal, with a flawless accent, is the one surprise in the cast — and the one surprise throughout most of the movie, too.

It’s delightful — of course it is — but there’s actually very little to shock or to make you think any deeper about what’s going on here. It’s a light-hearted comedy about the accidental invention of the vibrator (or ‘personal electrical massage device’), and features the usual suspects found in plenty of British period pieces. Rupert Everett plays Rupert Everett, the character everyone knows is outrageously gay, but no one minds because he’s terribly, terribly wealthy and he has a useful rich boy hobby (tinkering with electricity). Jonathan Pryce is the cynical businessman, in the business of bringing wealthy ladies to orgasm: a ‘tedious’ business, because he’s the kind of chap for whom imagining any woman experiencing joy is an affront to his senses. Maggie Gyllenhaal is his firecracker daughter, her every line delivered with breathless, manic conviction as she rattles from scene to scene defending the poor, the female, the sick, the unwashed and more; with Felicity Jones the passive, doll-like younger sister who merely wafts from studies of phrenology to studies of, apparently, one single book. Hugh Dancy’s the proud young doctor, booted out of all the hospitals in London because he has the temerity to believe in ‘germs’, who then finds himself caught between smugness and tedium (and RSI) as Jonathan Pryce’s heir-apparent. There’s loads more that could be said about the supporting cast, but they’re all playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect, so let’s move on — everyone is perfect in their role, and because of this the film bounces along merrily without any unevenness to the pace.

The actors sell their characters well, the film looks lush, and frankly it’ not a film that invites you to trouble yourself about the plot. However, it does hit a bit of a snag for me with some of the characterisation. Charlotte Dalrymple, the passionate suffragist, is evidently the sister to root for — her whirlwind energy is almost intimidating, and certainly made me think that she was a character who would also have almighty lows in between the driven, single-minded highs we saw. So she ends up a bit one-note, and rather more perfect than she needed to be; the problem being in the script here, and not in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s exuberant performance. But honestly I felt like Mortimer Granville was the only person who could be surprised at the sweetness of her response to him after the trial. His surprise is plausible from the perspective of his character, who is not nearly as socially progressive as Charlotte is, and may remind us that her contemporaries wouldn’t have seen her as a personality beyond the rhetoric, but it’s a reminder of just what a man of his time Mortimer remains. And that’s not a great reminder to get just before his big romantic proposal.

Which, may I add, kind of comes out of nowhere in the film. If he’s suddenly so damned rich, why does he have to marry her, when she’s expressed ambivalence about the prospect of marriage anyway? Is she even on good enough terms with her father at this point to get her dowry? Yes, yes, social conventions, I do understand. But it felt a little too close to a bribe, too soon after she left prison — I will come and work in your scuzzy little clinic but only if you marry me. Not that the film doesn’t show them enjoying each others’ company earlier, or having things in common, but it still felt a little too rushed for me, like they wanted to wrap up ALL the threads as quickly as possible at the end. I’d have liked to see her make use of the £2000 on the community centre before any prospect of marrying the person who provided her with those means came up, but that wouldn’t really have fitted the movie’s arc I suppose.

I did spend much of the movie wishing we saw more of Charlotte and Emily’s relationship — there were nice touches, with Emily defending her sister, but her thought-process remained inaccessible throughout the trial, until she appeared almost as a new woman, explaining why she was really quite happy not to be marrying Granville in the end. Having been convinced that she’d get thrown under the bus in favour of modern, spunky Charlotte, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Emily probably got the better deal in the end — free of Granville’s lukewarm attentions, free of the idea that she should try to please her father by being who he wanted her to be, Emily will take that personal electrical massager, thankyouverymuch, and Emily will not be using it to a prescription. Meanwhile Charlotte has to teach Granville how to kiss properly.

What prevents the movie being anything more than light entertainment is, for me, the use of Granville’s perspective. Contrast it with the best episode of Season 3 of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, where posh young women are undergoing treatment for hysteria at good old Aunt Prudence’s (Miriam Margolyes) house. The episode gets more into the female characters’ reasons for ending up there, and the ending is a powerful acknowledgement of the effect of repressing emotions, particularly grief, in a conservative, straight-laced society. Hysteria isn’t really that interested in the women at Dr Dalrymple’s clinic, nor in Emily and Charlotte, not beyond their easily recognisable stereotypes anyway. That it is told very much through Granville’s eyes is the reason for this, and probably also the reason why I wasn’t convinced by his proposal in the end; despite some nice interactions, there was little depth to his scenes with Charlotte.

Nevertheless, it was a fun watch, I did laugh a lot, and the performances of the excellent cast kept the standard higher than the script might otherwise have allowed for. And the actual closing line did have me in hysterics…

Rewatch: Rogue One (2016)

jyn-erso-rogue-one-1024x426

Enthusiasm might not quite cover this one. Obsession, maybe, or fixation. I think I’m one of those people who’ll tell you Rogue One is their favourite Star Wars movie, but my feelings about it are far more difficult to articulate: there’s a lot of flailing and despairing noises and BUT I JUST WANT TO KNOW THEM ALL BETTER BUT THE ENDING WAS SO RIGHT.

It’s not perfect, so let’s get that out of the way first. CGI Tarkin isn’t going to age well, and I wish they’d not shown Leia’s face at the end because the same applies as soon as she speaks. There are two things I’d change in a trice, one of which occurred to me on the first viewing, the second of which has been more of a burgeoning annoyance. The first is Cassian’s band of assassins, saboteurs and spies. They’re all men. Every time I see him slinking out of the hangar, followed by his rag-tag bunch of warriors, all I can think of is:

shrek-6
He’s mad, he’s really mad

It kind of kills the mood, you know what I’m saying? The second thing I’d change is a variation on the same theme, and one that only occurred to me when I read James Luceno’s prequel novel, Catalyst. Lyra is an explorer in it: intrepid, outdoorsy, maybe she’s also a geologist or surveyor, though I don’t think it’s specified. Then she marries Galen Erso and becomes the person who types up his notes. So far, so … true to much of academia and writing in general. And she’s still a great character. BUT — radical idea here — why not make Lyra Erso the famed Imperial scientist and have Galen sacrifice himself desperately at the start of Rogue One instead?(1) Instant Bechdel-Wallace pass, representation of women in the STEM subjects, doesn’t really change Jyn’s tragic backstory and Furious Angst™, so why not? Of course, He Judges pointed out to me that in that scenario the film-makers might not have been able to resist making the relationship between Lyra and Krennic massively skeevy, but allow me a world in my imagination where we could just make a straight swap and nothing else would change.

That’s … kind of it for my complaints. I love this movie. I love the look of it, the feel of it, the characters, the plot (I know the archive storage is dumb and I don’t care), the nods to the other movies, the humour, the hope and the hopelessness, the ending, the fact that, even more than The Force Awakens, after my experience of the prequels, it made the galaxy feel big again. These are the people I want to know in the Star Wars universe, not so much the Skywalkers or the Jedi Order. I want to know about the decisions of insignificant ensigns like Bodhi Rook that end up having huge consequences, and the fact that the Rebellion needs people like Cassian to do its dirty work and doesn’t always look out for them properly, and that there are people like Jyn who have been used as a bargaining chip by everyone but who can still find enough to care about to keep fighting. Also the Guardians: I’m so glad the Star Wars universe seems to have remembered that the Force exists independently to the Jedi. From Force worshippers/followers like Lor San Tekka and Lyra Erso, to all the cults in Jedha City, to the idea of ‘The Force of Others’, the Force can be interesting again, now that it’s not inextricably linked to a Jedi Council and its regulations. You can tell me again and again that Chirrut’s not a Jedi, and that’s fine — but you won’t convince me he’s not still Force-sensitive. I doubt that will ever be confirmed (just as I doubt that Disney is brave enough to make it explicit that he and Baze are a couple), but the fact that he could be is enough for me, for now. Again, in those EU books I grew up on, people could be Force-sensitive and not know it for years, only finding out far into their adult lives.

Big point to make here, now: I think Felicity Jones is great. And she makes a great Jyn. I think the complaints about the character stem from the fact that Jones does a really good job of showing someone who’s had a terrible time of things — who’s prickly, and mistrustful, and confused about her feelings towards a family and a galaxy she thought had abandoned her — and that this can’t be conveyed if she’s a cool, calm hero all the time. It’s understandable that she’d forget the holo message on Jedha, that her voice isn’t always steady when she makes speeches, that she’s often silent and taciturn and ungrateful for things that some people think she should be grateful for. Someone I know said that the only reason she saved the child on Jedha was to demonstrate her ‘maternal instinct’ and, wow, my rage about that is as fresh as ever, because that’s the most misogynistic thing I think anyone could imagine when watching that scene. Thematically, it should remind you of her past — she’s been a frightened child alone before and doesn’t want to leave another in that situation — and also of what’s to come — the futility of saving that child when the Death Star destroys the city anyway. At the very least it’s meant to be a sign to the audience — and a certain Captain Andor — that she’s not quite as devoid of values or ideals as might be suspected at this point.

Also, if you’re one of the ones clamouring for more alien representation … pray, tell me which of Star Wars’ first ethnic minority heroes would you like to swap out? I’d rather have the gang we have, while still enjoying the practical effects that remain ever-present in the background. Rogue One takes place over such a short amount of time, and packs so much in, yet the sense of camaraderie between the thrown-together heroes is strong — despite the Rebellion’s dysfunctional leadership, it still works, at least on some levels, because enough people believe in the cause.

It’s not radical to say that Rogue One is a movie about hope, but I find it hard to say how much I appreciate its message. It’s never not heartbreaking, every time I watch it, to see the troops facing down Darth Vader on board Admiral Raddus’ ship: like the main characters, none of them want to die, they didn’t show up to the battle intending to get killed, but they keep going, even as it becomes clear that there’s no way out. They keep going, taking one chance after another, until all their chances are spent. And don’t talk to me about Vader, and ‘why didn’t he just grab the plans with the Force?’ because ANAKIN SKYWALKER IS AN ARROGANT DICKBAG, DID YOU MISS THAT PART?(2) He’s a showman, he relies on the intimidation provided by his presence, and he’s over-confident, assuming that he’ll get his way in the end anyway. So fuck him, of course he was complacent enough to let the plans slip away on the Tantive IV.

I don’t go to Star Wars movies to see Vader and his cool red lightsabre. I go to Star Wars movies to see the Rebels kick the fascist Empire’s ass. Rogue One is my bag.

Oh, and if anyone from Disney/Lucasfilm is out there: please please please PLEASE can we have a spin-off Tales of Jedha City book, in the vein of the old Tales of… books? I want to know more about all those weird cults, and about the Decraniated and Dr Evazan, and the sister they were meant to meet at the temple, and Saw’s fighters, and the bor gullet. I guess some of this will be covered by the forthcoming Guardians of the Whills book on Chirrut and Baze’s backstories, but a revival of the Tales of… series would fit Jedha so well.

(1) Yes, I know, because Mads Mikkelsen as opposed to little known Irish actor Valene Kane.

(2) For real though, I love the Rogue One HISHE. It’s more plausible than a whole lot of the fix-it/AU fanfic I’ve read.

Rewatch: The Force Awakens (2015)

aaaaaaahhhhhhh.gif

We were going to watch the newly delivered Preciousss (Rogue One), but my partner, let’s call him He Judges, finally decided he wanted to rewatch The Force Awakens (that I’d been suggesting rewatching for months). It’s fine. I’m fine. We’re all fine here, thank you — how are you? We’ll watch Rogue One tonight. And many more times thereafter.

Look, I’m one of those people who’s not over the prequels. I hold a grudge. I am Tim. So TFA was a big deal; I avoided any information about it for as long as possible before seeing it for the first time, and I can forgive huge amounts of the call-backs/rehashes of elements from the original trilogy. And oh, that cast ❤

An admission: the first time I saw TFA, I was actually (whisper it) a little disappointed when Han and Chewie showed up. I was having so much fun with the new kids: (Poe Dameron is like my mental image of Wes Janson from all the X Wing novels come to life), that chase through the crashed Star Destroyer (it’s a CRASHED STAR DESTROYER), the Falcon, the sheer supportive, lovely enthusiasm of Rey and Finn working together!

Don’t worry, I got over that (the disappointment, not the enjoyment of the rest), though I could probably still do without the rathtars…

I used to watch and rewatch my VHS copies of the original trilogy (who didn’t, right?) and I knew that I could always rewatch them because I’d always spot something new in the background, or realise a new significance in a look or a bit of dialogue. It still feels true when I watch them now, even if I’m just spotting a detail that I’d previously forgotten about. So it was to my great joy that a rewatch of TFA produced the same feeling.

Oddly, one of the big revelations for me on this viewing, was how successfully it achieves what George Lucas was trying to do with the 1990s re-releases. All those CGI beasties that suddenly appeared in the background, or in panning shots of the landscapes of Tatooine (stormtroopers riding dewbacks, herds of bantha, that sort of thing), they’re there in TFA, but they’re models (more like the original worrt outside Jabba’s palace), and they fit into their landscape so much more comfortably. Never did I think that the sight of an Arcona sticking his head up out of the sand would make me so happy. Teedo, the steelpecker (*snigger*), all the scuffed-up props, people and parts that give Niima outpost a palpable sense of place — and one that remains distinct from that of Mos Eisley or Mos Espa.

Sometimes, the beasties do get a bit much, following in the spirit of those ’90s additions. The happabore (that big pig thing at Niima) and its tussle with Finn over the watering hole was fairly unedifying, but I’ll grudgingly admit that kids would presumably enjoy it, and hey, it’s not quite on a level with the slapstick of the prequels. As mentioned, the rathtars felt like overkill on the first viewing too, though now that I expect them they don’t seem so jarring with the rest of it.

I suppose a rewatch also begs a re-evaluation of theories about where the trilogy will go next. I’m most interested in Finn’s story at the moment; I’m not sure he’ll get Force abilities (the theory that the ‘awakening’ was his and not Rey’s), but Ren certainly seemed interested in him to an unusual degree. I hope something comes of that, but at any rate, Force preserve us from the idea that he’s a relative of Mace Windu. The reason I say I’m more interested in Finn at the moment is because of the overwhelming consensus that seems to exist regarding Rey’s family. I really don’t want her to be a Skywalker. I don’t want her to be a Kenobi. I don’t want her to be another Solo. George Lucas made the galaxy small in the prequels. He made it all about genetics and family and systems and order, but I grew up on EU books where anyone could find out they were Force-sensitive, at any point in their lives, and there was no expectation they’d have to become a celibate bureaucrat in order to get their hands on a lightsabre. I don’t want the last bloody Jedi to consist only of a band of temperamental Skywalkers, I want reassurance that the galaxy is bigger than that.

(I might make an exception if Mara Jade turns up).

My hope is that Rey, while obviously one of Luke’s former apprentices, has a history of her own that she can explore, like Finn will get to explore his. But some connection to the wider lore will be necessary, and I’d rather it came from Snoke — although again, I’m agnostic as to whether he’s someone we’ve already met in another guise. The degree to which Snoke is Force-sensitive (I’m guessing he’s not that powerful) and the role of the three Force ghosts seen at the end of Return of the Jedi are a couple of things I’m particularly curious about.

So, like my posts on anything medieval, this got pretty nerdy, pretty quickly. I’m not sure how to discuss TFA as if it’s not part of the Star Wars Saga, and within that setting, I don’t mind its repetitive set-pieces and themes. The new characters are great, none of them is a rehash of any of the original heroes (or the villains), and the characters are more important to me than the fact that the Macguffin yet again involved a shield-generator/Death Star siege/space-battle. I can make all the arguments you want for Rey’s power, and I’ll go along with everyone who’s telling you why Kylo Ren is just as scary as Vader because he’s an unpredictable, entitled brat whose worst qualities are quite familiar to anyone who’s witnessed the behaviour of the self-appointed gatekeepers of geekdom. I won’t claim that Starkiller Base isn’t ridiculous (I can rationalise a lot in the Star Wars universe, but how does its weapon fire faster than the speed of light? How does it not hit anything else that comes between it and the Republic’s headquarters? Should I read the novelisation of TFA to find this out? Is Kylo more Jacen Solo or Kyp Durron?), and I won’t say TFA is yet guaranteed a place in my top 3 Star Wars movies, but it sets things up for a trilogy I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of.

Rumbled by The Daily Mash

Damn, they got me.

INDIVIDUALS who claim to be enthusiastic actually just like hearing themselves speak, it has emerged.

Researchers found that people who excitedly describe their passion for a thing are merely trying to stop others getting attention.

Professor Henry Brubaker of the Institute for Studies said: “A bit of enthusiasm is fine, but quiet enthusiasm is best.

“Non-stop talking and trying to make out that you’re full of childlike wonder at the everything isn’t enthusiasm.

“That’s just being annoying.”

Professor Brubaker identified several key types of fake enthusiasm, the most prominent being ‘hipster whimsy’ where people pretend to love 80s frat-pack films, a specific type of now-unavailable cereal or an unpopular type of animal.

He added: “The other main one is ‘dead-eyed corporate passion’ which is found everywhere from shops, to meeting rooms, to branded internet video content.

“Then there’s ‘American bullshit’ which of course is a whole other level.”

Marketing consultant Nikki Hollis said: “I’m just a passionate person who discovers the best thing ever on an hourly basis and screams her head off about it.

“If you find that annoying then obviously you are dead inside. But I still think you are amazing.”

I guess if I want to start getting all that attention I’d better start advertising properly…

Rewatch: The 13th Warrior (1999)

13th-warrior-banderas-2.png

This, frequently hailed as the Best of Beowulf Movies, came out in the same year as its steampunk counterpart.(1) A year before Gladiator, when special effects wizards were developing innovative ways to keep Oliver Stone alive, and two years before The Fellowship of the Ring, so also when Weta Workshops were sacrificing all they could to the gods of CGI… in my memory, it’s more of a mid-nineties film, but on rewatching, that seemed unfair. What it is, is an Antonio Banderas film, and we’ve not had enough of those recently (I blame the Shrek franchise).(2)

It shows off its budget not through CGI (thanks goodness – the few bits and pieces around the sea-journey to Scandinavia have not aged well), but through live-action battle sequences. Unfortunately, as borne out by its disastrous performance at the box office, these don’t really seem to justify the costs… The battles are dimly lit and smokey, and although they occasionally make nice use of dramatic backlighting, in all, the effect is muddled and rather chaotic.

4251071942_7d7bc5cb93
Dramatic backlighting

Okay, battles are chaotic and muddled, but compare the opening fight in Gladiator just one year later, and you really feel the difference.

Despite the dull fight scenes then, why does this remain a candidate for Best of Beowulf Movies? Well, it helps that it respects its sources. Ibn Fadlan’s account of a Rus funeral is not an easy read: the fate of the sacrificial victim is deeply unpleasant from a modern perspective (if you’re interested, James Montgomery’s translation is the one to use (pdf), but be aware: trigger warnings for rape, intoxication and human sacrifice). But The 13th Warrior, presumably following its source material, Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, opens with a subtle, playful representation of the priggish Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s first meeting with the Rus. The nastiest elements of the funeral are omitted from the movie: the slave girl is seen in the door ritual, reciting what she can see of the otherworld, and her death is hinted at from a distance, as we peer across the crowds from ibn Fadlan’s own perspective. An appropriate choice, given that the account’s accuracy has been questioned by scholars who claim ibn Fadlan would not have been able to witness much of what he describes as it happens out of sight.

Other good signs in a Beowulf adaptation are that Hrothgar is treated with appropriate respect (don’t get me started on naked, CGI Anthony Hopkins – the poem itself has nothing but praise for Hrothgar as a ruler…) and that Wealtheow (or Weilew here) is not made into a love interest for the hero. Most Beowulf adaptations don’t know what to do with her, the only speaking female character in the poem. They want her to be more, somehow, misunderstanding her role in the poem as something subservient and downtrodden. Wealtheow is the epitome of the medieval noblewoman, however: she is the hostess, and the diplomat, and her awareness of the precarity of the peace between her sons and her nephew is one of the most emotionally affecting parts of the poem. Okay, so The 13th Warrior sidesteps these issues in a way by just adding in Olga, who gets to be the love interest instead, but it leaves Weilew to be aloof, in control and about as haughty as a noblewoman should be (I liked the touch that she knew the people of the territory better than anyone, identifying the child who survived the Wendols, and leading the warriors to the old woman who provides information).

Of course, The 13th Warrior is not just a Beowulf adaptation. Grendel, descendant of Cain, monster of indistinct appearance, has become the Wendols – presumably meant to evoke the Vandals, or Wends, and so conflating two completely different historical groups – and the Wendols are in every way a mish-mash of many other confused influences. They’re not a particularly good replacement for Grendel and his mother, I must say. They wear bear-skins and are so ferocious they’re not immediately recognisable as men (so evoking stereotypes of the berserkr, a class of elite warrior). They seem to follow a cult of the Mother Goddess, but their women are only ever seen secreted away underground (I guess it’s probably more likely than the matriarchal society Gimbutas would have extrapolated from the Wendols’ figurine…). ‘Grendel’s mother’, the matriarch herself, is quite cool, in her cave, with her poisoned bear-claw, but why it is that she craves human heads is never really made clear. So we have various ancient northern European tribes, the idea of the berserkr as described by late medieval writers, an indistinct connection between bears and pre-Christian Scandinavian religions, the ancient fertility symbol of a large-breasted pregnant woman, and a culture of head-hunting. It’s all a bit much, really. And the primitivism is laid on so thick that these Wendols may as well not be human (as Ahmad notes when in their cave).

Usually, I find the ‘humanisation’ of Grendel in Beowulf adaptations to be an unnecessary encumbrance to the story – except in the case of Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, which lets the monster be a monster, but tells things from his own, strange point of view, and encourages a different reading of the heroes and their society. The feud plot of Beowulf and Grendel (2005) is particularly grating; if you want to make a feud movie, just adapt an Icelandic saga, don’t stick some Ugg boots on a bloke and call him Grendel and have him shag some random Irish witch so that their son can continue the feud between Grendels and humans. Sorry, digressionary rant – but in The 13th Warrior I actually found myself longing for a bit more depth of characterisation to the Wendols. Just a bit more explanation of what they were and why – how had they been assumed to be extinct for so long, but so many remained?

Well, it’s getting hard to sustain the idea of this as the Best of Beowulf Movies now, isn’t it? That’s because Outlander (2008) probably gets the balance overall somewhat better, even if it has to become a sci-fi movie in order to do so.

But as The 13th Warrior how does the film do? Well, the portrayal of the main characters’ friendship is genuine and warm, and keeps you rooting for the heroes even through the dull battles and the confusing mythology. Banderas is always likeable, and he brings that likeability to Ahmad with full force: he’s prickly and snobbish when he meets the Northmen, but over the course of the movie his transformation is consistent and, mostly, believable (not sure about the sudden abilities with the scimitar…). The other warriors are just defined well enough, like the dwarves in the recent Hobbit trilogy, and Ahmad and Herger’s camaraderie is real and palpable. Buliwyf, mostly silent and square-jawed, makes a fine, elusively charismatic hero. Where he and Ahmad speak together, the movie journeys into territory that it’s hard to imagine contemporary films venturing into: Ahmad teaches Buliwyf how to write Islamic holy words (‘there is one God and Muhammad is his prophet’), and when calls of ‘Odin’ bring the Northmen successfully to land on a foggy coast, Buliwyf makes sure to thank Ahmad’s god as well as his own. Similarly, having prayed to God, Ahmad joins the Northmen in their repetition of the slave girl’s chant from the funeral at the beginning. This respectful, if at times bemused, encounter of beliefs is refreshing in the context of what is essentially a ‘viking’ movie, and rings true to a number of medieval sources.

The opening third of the movie is the one that I enjoy the most, and it was from this opening third that most of my memories of the film came prior to this rewatch. Still, The 13th Warrior is hugely ambitious in its scope and in the depth it aims to give to its characters and cultural setting. It’s just a pity that too many cultural referents lie behind this setting, and they bring confusion and unnecessary complexity to what is, in origin, a fairly straightforward story of heroics and fate.

(1) Okay, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981) gives it a run for its money, but it doesn’t seem fair to compare John Gardner with Michael Crichton… And I do really, really love the Christopher Lambert Beowulf too. 1999: Beowulf’s best year since surviving the Cotton Library fire of 1731?

(2) You know, like the Zorro movies, or even Evita. Something that suits his special brand of tongue-in-cheek intensity, and preferably allows for slapstick action sequences. I do keep meaning to watch The Skin I Live In, but I don’t think it features the latter…