11 June 2010

Merlin (1998)

Merlin Miniseries Satisfying to All
By Kristin Battestella

Despite new tales of Merlin and Camelot on the horizon, in my quest for all things Arthurian I often return to the 1998 Merlin miniseries.  Though straying from traditional legends just a bit, Sam Neill leads an all-star cast in this delightful adaptation of magic, romance, and charm.

In the wake of new religion and Saxon invasions, Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) refuses to accept the passing of the old ways like her sister the Lady of the Lake (also Richardson).  Mab creates the half-mortal, half-wizard Merlin (Sam Neill) to save Britain from its current path and restore the pagan ways.  Raised by the reformed witch Ambrosia (Billie Whitelaw), Merlin doesn’t care for Mab’s magical plans. He grows up alone in the forest until King Vortigen (Rutger Hauer) summons him for his gifts of prophecy and wisdom.  Merlin rescues the lovely Nimue (Isabella Rossellini) and sides with Vortigen’s enemy Uther Pendragon (Mark Jax, Jupiter Moon).  He uses Uther and the Lady Igraine (Rachel Colover, Bodywork) to create a protégé of his own to save Britain- the future king, Arthur (Paul Curran).  Unfortunately, Arthur, his wife Guinevere (Lena Heady), his half-sister Morgan Le Fay (Helena Bonham Carter), and the favored knight Lancelot (Jeremy Sheffield) brew trouble all their own in Camelot.

Merlin (Special Edition)Whew! It wasn’t so easy to get Merlin into such a nutshell. With three hours to fill, stand out music video director Steve Barron (Coneheads) can indulge writers David Stevens (The Sum of Us, Alex Haley’s Queen), Peter Barnes (Enchanted April, Alice in Wonderland), and Edward Khmara (Ladyhawke, Enemy Mine) in the complete mapping out of what is naturally a complex tale.  Though it’s understandable that a long lasting and nearly omnipotent character such as Merlin can narrate his life from beginning to end, sometimes the voice over seems too modern or out of place.  Time passes-we get it.  From Merlin’s conception to the fall of Camelot and Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail, Merlin is allowed its lovely spin on Arthurian essentials, ironies, tragedies, twists and turns.  Some of the effects may not be up to snuff for today’s spoiled audiences, but the exceptional cast brings this well done wonder to fruition.

At first thought, perhaps Sam Neill (The Tudors, Jurassic Park) is not whom we expect as the titular, often hunched and white haired Merlin. His complex performance of magic mixed with humanity, regret, and meddling, however, is the pinnacle here.  We like Neill and believe he is a wizard with the best intentions. When things go against Merlin, half-fey or not we feel for him and sympathize for the ill fate that is to come.  He’s strong against the evil Mab, yet wise to his charges and all the while capable of loving, loosing, and making mistakes. It might have been nice to stay longer with Daniel Brocklebank (Shakespeare in Love) as the younger Merlin, but that is not where this Merlin intends to be. This isn’t a tale of youth discovering magic, but rather a fantastical and somehow delightfully entertaining tragedy.  Like her famous mother before her, Isabella Rossellini (Death Becomes Her, Blue Velvet) is blessed with beauty inside and out.  She seems old enough to match the big boys around her, but her youthful grace and charm is evident all the same in this mature take. Agnieszka Koson (Lithium) as young Nimue is finely matched in likeness to her elder counterpart, but it’s incredibly weird that she was dubbed with Rossellini’s voice. 

Though obviously more likeable as the white clad and righteous Lady of the Lake, Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow, Harry Potter, The Crying Game) is a wicked treat as Queen Mab.  Her raspy, supposedly evil sounding voice is a little frustrating, but her scary look and ruthless persistence are wonderfully creepy. The effects for the Lady of the Lake, however, are also frustrating.  The duel scenes between the characters look sub par, and the wavy imagery and stilted, echoing speech are too distracting.  The simplicity of light and dark and the subtleties of Richardson’s performance don’t need the difficult vocals or flashy effects.  Martin Short (Saturday Night Live, Damages) as the gnome Fink, unfortunately, is a bizarre and unnecessary add in to the legend.  Despite what is a darling and Emmy nominated performance, the fine storytelling and good versus evil motifs are enough to appeal to younger audiences.  There’s no need for Short’s anachronistic humor, gag appearances, and visual tricks. Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke) is far more wicked and charming as King Vortigern.  He’s kinky and juicy with Mab even if his accent seems a little out of place. Likewise Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) adds weight as the kind-hearted but ill-fated Ambrosia.  It’s a shame that such a fine ensemble had to wait so long for such fanciful good stuff; but the mature, even dare I say middle-aged casting, gives Merlin stage-worthy clout whilst appealing to young and old.  Not all films work with pretty twenty-somethings, you know. 

Even before her current associations with kooky Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter (Howard’s End, Harry Potter, Sweeney Todd) had this knack for wicked and juicy parts.  Her ugly and later incestuously enchanting Morgan Le Fay almost steals the middle chapter of Merlin. Her bad girl intentions are slyly written all over her face, yet she’s beguiling all the same. Paul Curran (Hamlet) does his best as the seemingly bright eyed and wholesome but nevertheless corrupted Arthur, but the ladies best him. Lena Heady (300, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) is equally beguiling as the supposedly wholesome but no less faulty Guinevere, and Jeremy Sheffield’s (Holby City) Lancelot matches her accordingly.  The final wrench in the crooked Camelot system, Jason Done (Waterloo Road) as Mordred, is a little over the top; but the cast of Merlin concludes its tragic kingdom beautifully.

Thanks to such a wonderful cast and story, any of the visual errors in Merlin can be forgiven.  It seems strange to say a ten-year-old film is dated, but some of the graphics, onscreen magics, and supposedly big battle scenes are understandably on the low and small scale.  The costumes and make up are both high styled or drab as needed, and the music is a charming accent- even if it’s a little overbearing in some spots.  Fortunately, the sets and natural locals add authenticity and enchantment enough for the cast to perform and the audience to delight.  The refreshing conceptual design from Alan Lee (The Lord of the Rings) mixes Roman and early medieval accuracies- so for once we don’t have a fifth century English king in a fourteenth century French castle.  Accurate Arthurian representation can happen; and Merlin has the Art Direction, Costume Design, Make Up, and Visual Effects wins and more Emmys nominations to prove it.

It’s nice to view Merlin all in one film, most likely the way it was intended.  However, it would have been easier to have the DVD option to choose parts.  The Merlin (Special Edition) release also doesn’t have subtitles-which can go a long way in getting all the names of who is who in the soft-spoken scenes. Thankfully, we have a few features, including commentaries and a behind the scenes short. In many ways, I miss the late nineties resurgence of the miniseries. Hallmark and other networks and studios were able to take their time with classic material-unlike today’s dreadfully ill-conceived and often downright pathetic SyFy Channel movies of the week. Though these miniseries events were hampered by smaller budgets and the graphics of the time, attention to story telling and name casting made for some fine family entertainment- and most like Merlin, The Odyssey, Dinotopia, and The 10th Kingdom still hold up today.  These aren’t television series that pull out all the stunts and change their cast, characters, or stories in desperation for ratings or advertising dollars.  I fear these issues have hampered the current British Merlin series and will effect the cable juiciness of Starz’ forthcoming Camelot production. This Merlin tells the tale it establishes, and Bob’s your uncle that’s the secret to long-lasting wholesome charm and plenty of viewership. 

Arthurian scholars can study Merlin to their personal hearts’ content-or if time permits, a classroom debate is in order.  Youthful audiences can follow up with the lesser sequel Merlin’s Apprentice, the companion novels, or springboard to the numerous other Arthurian materials and adaptations. Occasional airings on the aforementioned SyFy Channel are surely edited for time and perhaps content; but despite Camelot’s built-in indiscretions, there’s nothing to deter a night of family viewing.  Merlin has enough magic and whimsy for tweens and younger while the elder, on form cast pleases mature audiences.  Clear your calendar and spend some timeless time with Merlin again soon.


Allison Rebeccah said...

I like this review and agree nearly completely except for the part about Mordred being over the top. Mordred isn't in all Arthurian lore, but he is almost always there when Morgan le Fay and Mab are big characters. I feel like not including him would have been odd from the POV of someone who is well versed in Arthurian legends.

Kristin Snouffer said...

Hi Allison. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment!

I agree there is almost always some form of Mordred or Maligant in most Arthurian tales, but for me, this Mordred seemed out of place or shoehorned in somehow. Miranda Richardson was juicy enough that the Mordred didn't have to be so in your face, but that's just me.

I'm a Valiant fan, and he's hardly in anything!

You might be interested in our current reviews of the New Merlin series as well. Again, thanks for stopping by!