The latest reimagining of the Beowulf tale, this TV series sees the rugged anti-hero return to the town of Herot, which he had left twenty years ago, and longing to seek some sort of purpose and belonging after his mentor/guardian Hrothgar, the town's Thane, dies. After the murder of Herot’s Reeve shortly after his arrival, Beowulf once again finds a home in the town and takes up the title, upholding the law and protecting the town from the external and internal dangers that constantly threaten its existence. Along the way, he finds himself in a complicated with relationship with Herot's healer, Elvina, and seeks to repair the strained relationship with his adopted brother, Slean.
It's clear from the outset that the makers of this show were trying hard to make this a "Game of Thrones for the Doctor Who family audiences", and while there are some interesting ideas at play, this series fails to be anything more than a decently average series. It's clearly trying to bridge the Doctor Who gap and there's already a pre-existing mythology to work from, which was adapted before with Robert Zemeckis' 2007 CGI-laden romp, so that's what the show is aiming for, but it never quite manages to find its feet. Since the height of Doctor Who's popularity, Merlin was spawned out of that, and when Atlantis came shortly after, it felt a little bit Merlin-lite. However, this isn't even Atlantis, so it suffers from this trickle-down effect and ends up being on a par with Jekyll and Hyde as a result.
It is admirable that the show doesn't take the easy route and make everything dark, grim and gritty, but the show suffers from these erratic shifts in plot and character development. Right from the start, the show pushes Beowulf into many trials and tribulations, yet this sets into motion too many subplots at the same time, which will put some people of. Characters are being murdered, betrayed and chased about left and right, long before any form of connection could've been made, leaving some of us feeling baffled, confused and frustrated that we never got to know some of these people. In fact, a lot of the character developments seem rushed, with some friendships and relationships being formed one minute or falling apart the next and vice versa, and all within the blink of an eye. A lot of mystery and political struggles are introduced to spice things up, but these individual aspects lack the depth and intrigue to drive them, especially since they have to be tied to a lot of the character's angles, like repressed childhood memories or forced romantic triangles.
It's evident that a lot of the resources went into the production, costume and setting design rather than the story itself. It is visually breathtaking with the locales of North East England perfectly used to create the setting of medieval Scandinavia, and the sets and costumes are incredibly polished and brightly colourful in terms of both the natural landscape and in human settlement. The CGI is a mixed bag, being well realised and acted in some areas, yet hokey and unnatural in others, although what can you expect from a modest TV budget? The performances are decently solid across the board, yet the real standouts come from both Ed Speelers and Holly Earl. Speelers adds real depth and complexity to the character of Splean, making you sympathise and understand his motivations, despite some of the shady dealings he performs, making him more of an interesting character than his adopted brother, Beowulf. Earl is equally amazing; introduced in episode 5, Kela is a character that is multi-layered, multi-faceted and creates an intriguing dynamic with Slean. She's pretty much the most surprising character on the show, and it's credit to Earl for pulling it off. s
In the end, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a mixed-bag of a series that's fun in short bursts, boasts amazing visuals and some impressive performances, but its the unfocused narrative and rushed characterisations that prevent this from being more than decent. Plus, it ends on a cliffhanging ball-buster of an ending that won't get resolved until next season, which seems unlikely due to rumours of cancellation being afoot. It's not as bad as a lot of critics have made it out to be, but it is a classic case of being all style and spectacle, but no substance or heart.
BEOWULF- RETURN TO THE SHIELDLANDS / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: JON EAST, JULIAN HOLMES, MAREK LOSEY, STEPHEN WOOLFENDEN, KERRIC MACDONALD / SCREENPLAY: JAMES DORMER, MICHAEL A. WALKER / STARRING: GÍSLI ÖRN GARÐARSSON, KIERAN BEW, JOANNE WHALLEY, ED SPELEERS, LAURA DONNELLY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW