By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
The Mists of Avalon, a two-part TV adaptation of novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s 1983 Wiccan-”herstorical“ retelling of the legend of Camelot, is not my usual flagon of mead, but it has been brewed much to my liking. Even the relative modesty of the budget works in the movie’s favor, since the human story -- enacted by an impressive-not-just-by-the-standards-of-television cast that includes Anjelica Huston, Joan Allen, Samantha Mathis and Julianna Margulies -- is not sacrificed to the outsize special effects and textually pointless pageantry that often attend film excursions into the lands of swords and sorcery, of bold knights and ladies fair and castles difficult to heat. No shape shifters, no dragons, no giants, no ethereal fairy sprites -- just some unshowy prognostication, spell casting and mist parting. Sideshow stuff. Merlin never even gets his wand out. Most of the digital-postproduction money has been spent environmentally, making computerized castles and virtual landscapes, and to swell the ranks of the armies that duke it out at the film‘s climax. And it doesn’t hurt that the pictures of actual people and places (in the Czech Republic) have been shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, whose credits include McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Deer Hunter and The Last Waltz.
The focus of the story is not King Arthur and his round-tabled crew, but Morgan le Fay (Margulies), here called Morgaine, a sinister and secondary character in most recountings, but this trip the heroine, or the heroine-victim-narrator; her mother, Igraine (Caroline Goodall, from Hook); and aunts Morgause (Joan Allen, wicked, evil, bad, but not without the odd eruption of sympathetic humanity) and Viviane, better known as the Lady of the Lake (Huston, who seems the obvious choice for any such role). More or less the pagan pope of Olde Britain, she makes her headquarters on Avalon, a mystical invisible island world in the vicinity of Glastonbury, where they hold the rock festivals now, and works in cahoots with Merlin (who has less to do here than usual, though he gets a nice speech when he dies) to keep the Goddess alive by any means necessary. Each of the women has a fine head of pre-Raphaelite curls and inborn witchiness to spare, which she uses or refuses in her own way.
The tug of war between the old religion (female, worldly, Druid) and the new (male, heavenly, Christian) for the soul of England drives the plot, but it‘s more asserted than felt; it’s beside the point, almost. What keeps the interest is old-fashioned court intrigue, spiced with a spell or two, but boiling down to political rivalries, sexual jealousy and some seriously fucked-up family business. There is much skulking and spying and subterfuge. Still, none of it is quite as Aaron Spelling as it sounds, and most of it has some established mytho-historical basis -- though getting Arthur (Edward Atterton), Lancelot (Michael Vartan) and Samantha Mathis‘ confused and uptight Guinnevere, or Gwenhwyfar as she is Celtically called, together in a three-way is a new twist on the old theme.
Though She is supposed to keep the world in balance, keep it from devolving into chaos, the Goddess has apparently gone fishing; certainly none of Her acolytes gain much from their fealty, and Morgaine is especially misused in her name. But this just makes Morgaine the more classically tragical -- though as Margulies plays her, she’s energetically tragical, and basically strong, and doesn‘t seem like a simp for all that she accedes in her own fall. Like many literary figures past, and most of the characters in this film, she’s a creature born to duty -- to conflicting duties -- and therefore to suffering. This is an antique trope, yet appealing to the modern mind -- we like characters who go down fighting against hopeless odds (though we prefer them to win), even if we understand such behavior now to be pathological, insufficiently adaptive, and a waste of life and money. Still, Camelot would not be Camelot without its ruin, and it is as well-ruined here as a viewer could ever expect.
Of course it isn‘t perfect -- but expecting perfection from a TV movie is like standing at a bus stop hoping for a limousine to arrive. (It could happen, it could, it could.) Actions are here and there unaccountable, characters don’t age consistently or convincingly, and one must submit intermittently to the candle-shop keening of Loreena McKennitt on the soundtrack, a little bit of hippie talk on the side of Mother Earth, the odd solemn ceremony that might have come out of an old Star Trek, and far too many instances of meaningful slow motion. Still, it‘s overall a swift trip through a thick book, directed with a minimum of corn by Uli Edel (The Little Vampire, Last Exit to Brooklyn), and if it is not as spiritually resonant as the novel’s cult might like, it is rarely dull, is exciting in dirtier, less rarefied ways, and is consistently involving, even though we know from the start pretty much how things end. Not well.
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