Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands S01E01 “Episode 1” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on ITV 1, Sundays
Writer: James Dormer
Director: Jon East
Essential Plot Points:
- As a boy Beowulf proves his heroism by killing a mudborrn troll that killed his dad.
- This impresses Hrothgar, the local thane of Herot, who takes Beowulf under his wing, and raises him like a son.
- But Hrothgar’s real son, Slean, loathes his new foster brother, especially as young Beowulf is clearly shaping up to be the better warrior.
- One day, after Slean insults Beowulf’s dad and the boys get into a fight, Slean’s mum, Rheda, accuses Beowulf of trying to kill Slean.
- Beowulf leaves Herot in self-exile, though Hrothgar tells him he will return when Herot and Slean need him.
- Twenty years later, having picked up a sidekick with a wandering eye called Breca, Beowulf returns to Herot when he hears that Hrothgar is dying.
- By the time they arrive, Hrothgar is dead and Beowulf gets a chilly reception.
- However, Hrothgar named his wife, Rheda, as his successor, not his son Slean.
- Rheda and Slean refuse to let Beowulf see Hrothgar’s body, but they do let him stay for the wake.
- After which Herot’s Reeve, Bayen, is killed. Beowulf finds him dying and sees a mudborn flee the scene. Everyone else then arrives to discover Beowulf next to the body and so they accuse him of murder.
- Herot’s medicine woman, Elvina (who’s bonking Slean on the sly, by the way) rides out of Herot pursued by a mudborn that was waiting outside the walls (it’s the same one Beowulf believes killed Bayen). But when she’s attacked by a barghest, the pursuing mudborn (which is of a type no one in Herot has seen before) saves her then takes her to an long-abandoned giants’ city.
- Breca helps Beowulf escape captivity before he’s executed, and they ride off to save Elvina, also finding time to make Slean look like a prat along the way.
- Beowulf and Breca “rescue” Elvina… not that the mudborn is actually doing anything threatening to her.
- All three return to Herot and Rheda pardons Beowulf.
- But Elvina discovers that Bayen wasn’t killed by mudborn claws; he was stabbed.
You have to admire ITV’s commitment to fantasy at the moment. After a series of high profiles fantasy flops on UK TV recently – Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell, Sinbad, Atlantis, Jekyll And Hyde – you’d have thought that TV execs would run screaming at the mention of the “f” word. The shame is, most of those shows were actually very entertaining (Atlantis being the dishonourable exception); it simply seems that the only kind of fantasy UK audiences want to watch has lots of blood, boobs and f-bombs. “Family fantasy” shows are apparently just a big turn off, or the stuff of minority interest channels only.
The only exception in the recent past has been Merlin, which benefitted from that rare alchemy of a pair of leads who created genuine onscreen magic (and zillions of words of slash fiction). Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands doesn’t look like it wants to be Merlin, though; it truly seems to think that it can be a family-friendly Game Of Thrones, complete with beardy northern-accented heroes; political intrigue; camp, Machiavellian advisors; a rip-off theme tune; and lots of mud. Sure, there are more monsters, but there’s definitely more Westeros than Camelot or Middle-earth in Beowulf’s world-building, though all three have an influence.
It’s a tough trick to pull off and on the evidence of episode one, this adaptation of the great Old English epic poem is going to face an epic struggle. It’s not bad by any means, and delivers a well-made, well-acted, lavish-looking premier. There’s just not anything particularly special about it. It’s feels familiar. It feels safe. It feels like a show that desperately needs a USP. There’s not much you can imagine creating a buzz in the playgrounds or pubs of Britain.
There are a few surprises. The precredit teaser does a Buffy by inverting expectations; you expect the grown-up warrior not the kid to defeat the monster. The female characters are (by an large) much better written than you’d expect in this kind of action/adventure show (though one still ends up a damsel in distress). And the CG “Grendel” looks like he’s not destined to be the villain of the story. There are some fun lines, and a number of intriguing-looking support characters.
But overall, it’s just a bit bland. Beowulf’s original banishment in the flashbacks has a feel of, “Is that it?” while the political machinations, as well as the antagonism between Slean and Beowulf, are all fairly bog standard dramatic grist. The fact that we don’t learn about what Beowulf’s been up to in the intervening 20 years leaves his character in a bit of a vacuum. And despite some fine-looking production design there’s no one, real visual “wow” moment to savour. CG creatures? Yeah, fine, but they’re hardly a rare delight any more.
There is undeniably a lot of potential. The cast is excellent and they look like they could really develop these characters. The set-up could grow into something more engrossing and multilayered. Shifting allegiances already look likely.
But when a show based on an epic is so decidedly un-epic in its first outing, are the genera audience going to stick around to see if things do improve?
- Great sets and production design – love the rococo-celtic fusion.
- Technically, the creatures may not be the greatest CG creations ever seen on TV but they’re animated with a great deal of character. The troll mourning its dead partner and the “Grendel” (if that’s what it is) having to quickly swap its grip when it tries to grab a rope with it mutilated hand help bring these characters to life.
- The Breca/Lila romance is genuinely amusing, especially the way it pisses off the smithy owner’s daughter. “What were you thinking?” wails Vishka. “I wasn’t,” replies Lila with a lewd grin.
- Other support characters are also looking promising, including Rheda’s effete-and-creepy advisor Varr, and her brother Abrecan, who may seem magnanimous now, but we reckon Rheda should keep an eye on him.
- There’s a gratifying attempt to make sure the females aren’t just window dressing, even if it is a tad self-conscious as times.
- Joanne Whalley is very impressive, dominating every scene she’s in.
- It’s all a bit bland and by-the-numbers. There are a few surprises but it needs more.
- The theme tune sounds like the Game Of Thrones theme played on fast-forward.
- The fight scenes are cut stupidly fast.
- There is some really clunky expositional dialogue: “Why did you rescue me?”
- William Hurt looks like he filmed his scenes during his tea breaks on Humans.
- Slean’s ridiculous hair.
- At the end of the episode, when it turns out that Bayen was stabbed, not killed by a mudborn, why isn’t Beowulf immediately under suspicion again?
And The Random:
- Breca is mentioned in the original Beowulf poem. He’s a childhood friend of Beowulf and the two of them have a swimming competition.
- While giants and trolls are in the poem, barghests are not.
- In the poem Beowulf is a hero of the Geats, who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose great hall, Heorot, is being plagued by the monstrous Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands. Grendel’s mum is not happy about this and seeks revenge so Beowulf kills her with a giant’s sword. Some time later Beowulf himself becomes king of the Geats, and this time trouble comes in the form of a dragon. Beowulf eventually kills the dragon but is fatally wounded in the process.
- A few “where do I know her/him from?”s: you may have seen Elliot Cowan (Abrecan) in regular roles in Sky’s Sinbad, Da Vinci’s Demons and The Frankenstein Chronicles; Alex Price (Koll) was the indie ghost Gilbert in Being Human, Francesco in the Doctor Who episode “The Vampires of Venice” and Proteus in Penny Dreadful; Kieran Bew (Beowulf) was Alfonso, Duke of Calabria in eight episodes of Da Vinci’s Demons; and Laura Donnelly (Elvina) was Sarah Kay in The Fall and Jenny Fraser in Outlander. We presume you know who Joanne Whalley and William Hurt are.
- The first sword fight has 34 shots in 22 seconds. That means each shot averages just under two-thirds of a second. That’s getting into Michael Bay territory.
Review by Dave Golder