directed by Steve Barron
(NBC/Hallmark, 1998)

Merlin has a top-notch cast which any director would envy, but still it fails. It had the chance of telling one of the greatest epics in human history, but instead, it tells the story of Merlin as well as First Knight tells the story of Arthur -- in other words, not well at all.

This version draws a few details from the rich tapestry of Merlin's legend and recasts them in an overwrought drama about the faerie queen's last, desperate attempt to preserve her realm from Christian conquest. But, where T.H. White's magical rendition, filled with grand spells and unicorns, still suited the Arthurian mythos, this does not. It pits the old ways of British paganism against the new Christianity, but settles for portraying the personification of magic, Queen Mab, as evil without offering another side to the conflict.

This made-for-TV movie also gives short shrift to most of the primary characters of the story. It's hard, for instance, to feel much compassion for the plight of Lancelot (Jeremy Sheffield) and Guinevere (Lena Headey) when they appear as a good knight and a faithful queen for about one scene apiece, then fall immediately to their betrayal. Arthur's predecessor, Uther (Mark Jax), is a good man for one scene, then a tyrant for the next.

Arthur (Paul Curran) fares slightly better -- we get a chance to see hints of his nobility and potential greatness, but again, it goes by too quickly. He becomes king and marries, and zoom, he's off a'questing for the Grail. He returns years later, just in time for everything to fall apart. How can the viewers feel anything for the tragic downfall of Camelot when the filmmakers forgot to show us its glory?

And oh, what a waste of great acting potential!

Miranda Richardson is a talented performer, but she's given little to work with here as the evil enchantress Mab. She is utterly unsympathetic, striking no chord to inspire a desire to preserve the old ways, and her throaty hoarseness is irritating from the first scene on. Martin Short, a skilled comic actor, is gratingly annoying as Mab's personal imp, Frik. His hoity-toity English accent and costume changes are anachronistic at best and, while they might be amusing in the cartoon such as Disney's classic The Sword in the Stone, they're annoying here.

Helena Bonham Carter, one of my favorite dramatic actresses, becomes a lisping caricature of Morgan Le Fey. Rutger Hauer appears for a while as King Vortigern, but his performance is miserably two-dimensional -- a villain who is nasty just for the sake of nastiness. Equally flat is Jason Done as the one-note Mordred.

There are also ample cameo appearances here which should have served to spice up the production but, again, the characters were never used enough for us to care. Among the special appearances are John Gielgud as King Constant, Billie Whitelaw as Ambrosia, Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Sir Boris, John McEnery as Lord Ardente, Nicholas Clay as Lord Leo, Robert Addie as Sir Gilbert, Nickolas Grace as Sir Egbert, Peter Woodthorpe as Vortigern's soothsayer, Peter Eyre, Vernon Dobtcheff and Peter Bayliss as Camelot's physicians, and the voice of James Earl Jones as the Mountain King. (Study those names carefully and you'll find a few who appeared in major roles in 1981's Arthurian epic, Excalibur.)

Then of course there's Merlin himself. Sam Neill is one of the few members of this cast who had enough screen time and a strong enough script to make something of his character work. He is in turns witty, angry, bitter, hopeful and at all times charismatic. He and his lady love, Nimue (Isabella Rossellini) were the strongest piece of the movie (despite a sickeningly sweet conclusion), yet their performances weren't enough to save those less fortunate around them.

It's a shame, because such a great cast could have done so much more. Although beautifully filmed, this Merlin gives its actors too little -- or in some cases, too much -- to do. The silliness of a great many scenes trips up the drama of others, and many of the CGI effects seem to be there primarily for the purpose of showing viewers what computers can accomplish these days. Some of the camera action seemed better suited to an MTV video than a lush costumed epic.

Given the $30-million budget and gorgeous setting in Wales, this could have been great. As it is, however, it unsuccessfully straddles the line between children's farce and historical/fantastical drama. It says something about the production, I think, that Merlin received a slew of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, but won only a few Emmys in categories unrelated to characters, actors and plots. The accolades the movie received, for art direction, costume design, makeup and special effects, are well deserved, but eye candy won't attone for a lack of solid storytelling. For a better film about Merlin, seek out the hard-to-find BBC adaptation of the Mary Stewart novel, Merlin of the Crystal Cave.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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