The Mists of Avalon
directed by Ulrich Edel
(Warner Brothers, 2001)

The legend of Arthur has always been able to capture my imagination like no other story has done. My bookshelves are filled to overflowing with variations of the tale, and my video collection has most of the highs (Excalibur) and lows (First Knight) of Arthur's cinematic appearances. But none of them ever got it right.

Until, in many ways, now.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's landmark novel The Mists of Avalon has finally been brought to life. Not, unfortunately, on the big screen, but TNT's small-screen treatment for a four-hour mini-series (first airing on July 15-16, 2001) more than does justice to the spirit of the late Bradley's work.

Although the novel has long been one of my favorite Arthurian tales, it has flaws. Bradley's presentation of the druidic faith seems at times more a campaign for Wicca than a sincere attempt to present the more ancient Celtic faith. Also, her Arthur is a weaker man that I'd like him to be; he often acts as little more than a puppet to the whims of the women around him, not at all the strong-willed man he'd need to be to unite the Celtic peoples of Britain against their common foes.

Those failings have been corrected in the film. Arthur, aptly and nobly played by Edward Atterton, is a strong character indeed -- he is influenced, but not ruled, by the women in his life, and his heart is never in doubt.

And it's those women who are the true focus of Mists. Arthur is a secondary character as the story's spotlight shines on three sisters: Viviane (Anjelica Huston), the Lady of the Lake and high priestess of Avalon, Morgause (Joan Allen), the ambitious and spiteful queen of distant Orkney, and Igraine (Caroline Goodall), wife first to the Cornish duke Gorlois and, later, to the valiant High King Uther Pendragon, with whom she conceives Arthur; as well as Arthur's wife, Gwenhwyfar (Samantha Mathis), and most importantly, Arthur's half-sister, the priestess Morgaine (Julianna Margulies).

I sat riveted as I watched a preview of the film. This, more than any other filmed version of the Arthurian saga, captures the passion, the glory and the heartbreak of that classic tale of Camelot. This is not a blood-soaked, battle-drenched version of the story (Excalbur), nor is it dominated by a love triangle, betrayal and broken hearts (First Knight) -- although certainly the love shared by Arthur, Gwenhwyfar and Launcelot (Michael Vartan) is a part of the story, and the final battle between the forces of Arthur and the invading Saxons led by his bastard son Mordred (Hans Matheson) is a major scene of mayhem and conflict. No, this version, adapted from Bradley's novel by screenwriter Gavin Scott, explores the deeper relationship Arthur shares with both pagan and Christian authorities in his kingdom.

Don't take that to mean that Mists is preachy. The story presents a glowing view of goddess worship without making the faith seem evil or kitschy, the two extremes most often applied to presentations of this sort. Neither does it attempt to slam Christianity, as so many pagan-based productions have been known to do. Rather, Mists gives a fair view of the differences in religion and the means by which they can co-exist without contradiction.

Filmed in Prague with a $20-million budget, Mists succeeds as a lush, visually exciting story for the ages. It should stand for years to come as a classic of the genre. Without a doubt, it leaves the 1998 mini-series Merlin, starring Sam Neill and Miranda Richardson, in its wake. Costumes are well-chosen, with a satisfying lack of anachronistic "shining armor" and pageantry to be seen. Filming is bold and colorful, at times even primal and subtly erotic.

The cast does a fine job throughout the film, from tumultuous beginning through peaks and valleys to bitter end. Margulies in particular shines as the central figure of the tale, stunningly enchanting but irrevocably locked within the complex pattern of the plot. She narrates the story with a dead, lifeless voice -- the voice of someone who has lost her entire world -- but she acts with fierce passion as she strives to fulfill her duties to her faith and kingdom, be true to those she loves and, if possible, snatch some bit of happiness from her life.

Huston is a perfect match for the lofty and mystical Viviane, who shapes the fates of those around her with the best of intentions but not always the greatest of insight into their futures. Allen is sinister and inflexible in her ambition and scheming machinations, while Mathis begins as a sweet and innocent girl who grows bitter as her fate becomes clear. Vartan plays an understated but very believeable Launcelot. The only false note is sounded by Matheson, who does maniacal evil very well but seems somewhat two-dimensional in his portrayal. Even the young actors portraying Arthur and Morgaine as children (Freddie Highmore and Tamsin Egerton) did a fine, convincing job.

Obviously, much of Bradley's book was sacrificed to fit into a four-hour movie, but devoted fans should be pleased with this interpretation. It will doubtlessly bring many new readers to worship at Bradley's altar, and I suspect the video when released will become a collectable classic. This is an excellent, excellent film.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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