05 February 2009

Mists of Avalon (2001)

Mists of Avalon Film A Fine Adaptation
Guest Review By Leigh Wood

I really enjoyed TNT’s television adaptation of Mists of Avalon when it premiered in 2001. After reading the sub par novel, I can however, still enjoy the miniseries’ mature approach, fanciful production, and lovely locales.

Morgaine (Julianna Margulies), daughter of Igraine (Caroline Goodall) and Gorlois (Clive Russell), adores her half brother Arthur (Edward Atterton), son of Igraine and Uther Pendragon (Mark Lewis Jones). The children are separated when Arthur is sent to train with The Merlin (Michael Byrne), and Morgaine leaves for the hidden island of Avalon to study with her Aunt Viviane (Angelica Huston), The Lady of the Lake. Morgaine falls in love with her cousin Lancelot (Michael Vartan), but he falls in love with Gwenwyfar (Samantha Mathis), betrothed of Arthur. Their turbulent relationships and the vile influence of Viviane’s sister Morgause (Joan Allen) can not bode well for Camelot, Avalon, or the future of Britain-herself torn by invading Saxons and growing discontent between Pagans and Christians.

The opening scenes and narration set up the story well enough. Unfortunately, my favorite Arthurian tale about how Uther could disguise himself and charm Igraine is seemingly tacked onto the beginning of the film as an afterthought back story for Morgaine, not for its tale itself. At least Marion Zimmer Bradley dedicated the entire first part of her 1982 source novel to Igraine. I like her story the best from the novel, but the first half hour telling of Gorlois, Igraine, and Uther Pendragon feels like an extended prologue here. With Morgaine’s sporadic narration of the onscreen events along with her brief spots as a child, it doesn’t feel like we’ve begun to tell the real tale yet. It would be nice to have each segment of the Arthurian story detailed properly ala Lord of the Rings. With its three hour run time, you would think Mists of Avalon has enough time to tell all, but the novel is ill paced, and the screenplay by Gavin Scott (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Earthsea) suffers the same. Once Morgaine gets to Avalon and goes into priestess training, we again get the set up or prologue feeling. Mists of Avalon is not meant to be a tale of child kings and fantasy little girls. Quite the contrary, despite being a television production with relatively tame material for today’s standards, the subject matter is not for kids.

The Mists of Avalon Although Mists of Avalon is largely a Julianna Margulies vehicle, Joan Allen (The Crucible, Nixon, Pleasantville) steals the show as the vile Morgause. She looks sexy and evil, and Morgause has a plan, a twisted goal to claim power for herself and uses her skills for it. It’s nice to have someone know what they want with no regrets among all these indecisive and conflicted people. Her cruelty onscreen keeps Mists interesting. Caroline Goodall (Schindler’s List) doesn’t have enough to do as Igraine, unfortunately. She has the weakest costumes and doesn’t look pretty enough to be picked over Morgause to bear the great Arthur. Some of the extras are dressed better, not so layered or poorly done up. Angelica Huston’s (Prizzi’s Honor, The Addams Family, The Witches) age also shows in her earth mother Lady of the Lake style. She does well as the wise Viviane, but her politics, double talk, and selfish plots in the name of Avalon make the character flawed, and truly a bit unlikable. It’s Huston’s great voice and presence that keep Viviane bearable. The supporting priestesses’ gowns look better than Vivaine’s robes, but the baldness and dreadlocks are a bit unattractive. The wild flowing hair and loose braids of Morgause and Morgaine look far better.

Juliana Margulies (ER) has the beauty and the dramatic looks and talent to be the star of Mists of Avalon, I only wish she had a better character to play. We like her, so we like Morgaine, but some of Bradley’s story and director Uli Edel’s (Rasputin, Homicide: Life On The Street) set up for Morgaine is a bit much. So many relationships and scenarios are ill conceived for these characters. You know it can’t turn out well. All these people meddle. Let things go as they may already! These meddlers cause the exact things they are trying to prevent. Morgaine is so quick to hate her incestuous bastard child but for years she pines after her cousin before carrying on an affair with her husband’s son. Sometimes Morgaine’s narration of all this is a little annoying. How does she know what is happening everywhere all the time? Tamsin Egerton (Octavia) plays the child Morgaine well enough. I would have liked to see her more, but the boy Arthur played by Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) just looks goofy. Its tough to believe the bond between the kids because we know of the inadvertent incest to come. In fact, it’s a little nasty.

Michael Vartan, before his it moment on Alias, is totally limp as Lancelot. The gear looks so ill fitting on him, and its tough to find him such a charmer for all these women-and most of his admirers are family! Creepy. I know this is supposed to be a female friendly Arthurian tale, but Mists of Avalon hurts its production with weak male leads, poor male style, and bad aging make up on the boys. Atterton’s (Children of Dune) Arthur is portrayed as wishy washy and indecisive about everything from Christianity to Paganism and if he prefers girls (namely his sister) or boys. I don’t mind Arthur or Lancelot being portrayed as flawed or homosexual, but I object to two of the strongest heroic characters in English literature being dumbed down to stereotypical limp wristed and whipped boys. And lastly, Samantha Mathis (Little Women, Broken Arrow) has yet to impress me. Her clothes are great here, but her hair looks ill suited for her face. Once pulled back and crowned, she looks better, but her high and mighty ways as Gwenwyfar make the character unlikable. Foolish and hypocritical, Gwenwyfar points the finger at everyone herself. Courses, smourses. PMS anyone?

But of course I must mention the more risqué material in Mists of Avalon. The three way scene between Arthur, Gwenwyfar, and Lancelot isn’t as awkward as the incestuous Beltain Rites, but both seem out of place. Sure we might want some fantasy sex and kink, but it’s a bit much and made too big a deal. Lancelot and Gwenwyfar act so conflicted, but you know dang well they want it more than Gollum wants the ring. Mists of Avalon is not all about the naughty bits, thankfully. Truly it isn’t even that kinky, but rather discreetly edited. So for all the supposedly deviant behavior, onscreen we don’t see much more than kissing.

Mists of Avalon is a complex tale to tell. Thank goodness for subtitles. The narration is redundant in some places, and some things could have been said onscreen instead, but other cryptic parts and complicated timeline changes make the voiceover essential. Although the zoom and spin effects of the telepathy and magics look too fast and silly and obviously cgi; and the men’s costumes and armor look on the cheap; the establishing shots for Mists are incredible. Finely dressed sets, natural scenery, and subtle cgi artwork give Mists of Avalon the perfect medieval fantasy feel. Some things do look dark or small scale, and the interior sets don’t always appear to match their facades, but these slights are understandable for a television production. The music is too obvious at times, but it has the perfect Celtic and fantasy medieval vibe with vocal overtones and sweeping strings and pipes. The essential parting of the mists effect makes the show. In one swift motion we get all the set up we need. Now we’re getting to what Mists of Avalon is all about. Lothian, Cornwell, and Glastonbury are real places, and with a bit of movie magic we can believe in Camelot and Avalon, the hidden world doomed by the diminishing belief in its fantasy.

All my harshness, and yet I like Mists of Avalon. Its so refreshing to see a mature and well produce fantasy tale with talent, unlike some of those horrible Sci Fi Channel Originals out there. It is not perfect, but superior to the novel. All the written side tangents, excessiveness, and too similarly named folks are condensed and tightened neatly here. The Mists of Avalon film takes all that is good in the novel and gives us a lovely and mystical presentation. But I must say the ending could have been stronger. We can surmise how this Arthurian story ends, but the angry rush getting there is too brief. As Igraine was tacked on to open, the rise of Mordred seems too quick to close.

There’s no behind the scenes features on the Mists of Avalon DVD, only nice write ups about the cast, photos, and deleted scenes. These additional scenes add more background, but were cut for the best I think. Fans of all things King Arthur will enjoy Mists of Avalon as should most fantasy aficionados. Male viewers may not like the feminist touches, and prudes should avoid for all the kinky bits. There’s not nearly as much potentially offensive material here as in the novel. If you’re curious about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon material and don’t know where to begin, the telefilm Mists of Avalon might be the risk free way to go. Fine fantasy values keeps Mists of Avalon worthy of repeat viewings.

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