Okay. I will put my hands up and admit to being a bit of a fan of the Arthurian legends. While it does fall under my “it’s already been told, so why bother with a new version” category, it’s significantly sketchy to allow room for creative originality by each and every storyteller. A bit like the classic Greek myths.
The story of King Arthur, and consequently of Merlin, is a fascinating myth; a part of our heritage that has inspired so many tellings and retellings (poor old Geoffrey of Monmouth – if only he were alive today he’d be raking it in from royalties – shame copyright has such a short extension..) that there are probably still many more permutations that could keep the legend going on even further.
Of all the modern versions of the myth, my absolute favourite has got to be John Boorman’s Excalibur starring the late Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Nigel Terry as King Arthur. Excalibur is not shy at showing the violence, the nudity and the sex. No stone is left unturned in this adaptation and Williamson is particularly brilliant. By far the best and most entertaining Merlin there has ever been.
Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, Hallmark Entertainment were responsible for big-budget TV fantasy mini-series produced by Robert Halmi, Sr. and his son, Robert Halmi, Jr. Together they produced shows like Arabian Nights, Merlin, 10th Kingdom, Dinotopia and the dreadful Tin Man.
Merlin, produced way back in 1998, was directed by Steve Barron – an Irish filmmaker who had found his mark making pop videos for the likes of Dire Straits, Michael Jackson and a-ha. He subsequently transitioned to directing films and television shows and Merlin is one of his finest works.
Merlin features Sam Neil as Merlin, Miranda Richardson as Queen Maab (and her sister, the Lady of the Lake), Isabella Rossellini as Nimue, Rutger Hauer as King Vortigern and Martin Short as Frik and many more star-studded appearances (including Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan La Fey).
Split into two sizeable episodes, the story starts off with Queen Maab meeting with her sister, the Lady of the Lake, to discuss what to do about the old religion making way to this new fangled religion called Christianity. Maab plots to create a child who can lead Britain back to the old ways, but her sister wants nothing to do with it and refuses to help. Merlin is eventually born – half mortal as a consequence – to Elissa, who dies shortly after giving birth. Maab entrusts Merlin’s upbringing to a witch who has left the service of Maab to practice Christianity.
As Merlin becomes a teenager, he meets the beautiful Nimue – the daughter of a lord loyal to King Vortigern. He ends up rescuing her when she gets stuck fast in mud and that’s when he realises that he is able to perform magic. At this point Maab turns up and whisks Merlin away to her lair to start his magical education. Maab’s “man-servant” Frik (played by Martin Short in top form) is his tutor. Once Merlin discovers his purpose in life, he rebels against Maab and leaves. Angered by Merlin’s betrayal, Maab pays Ambrosia the former witch (and Merlin’s adopted mother) a visit and all but practically wipes her out. Merlin vows revenge by not conceding to Maab’s plans.
And that’s when things begin to pick up. I won’t go into the plot any further otherwise I’d be here all day. But this film is such a rich tapestry with very strong performances from all the leads that it’s such a joy to watch. Visually the film benefits enormously from Barron’s music video background and Trevor Jones’ (who ironically also scored Excalibur) score is majestic and wonderful. Even though this film is 14 years old, the VFX still stands up well (primarily by Framestore, but my former employers MPC are also involved) and overall this is a decent telling of the Arthurian legend.
Certainly, it contains all the main elements of the legend such as Arthur having sex with his half-sister who bears his son (and technically also his nephew), Mordred, and the ever popular Sir Lancelot having an affair with Guinevere and almost getting her burnt at the stake for treason (yet strangely NOT Lancelot). There’s a great moment during the confrontation between Arthur and Guinevere in which she has a go at him for fathering Mordred and not telling her.
If I had a criticism to make it’s the ending. It’s a bit too convenient. But then again, if they had followed the legend a bit deeper, what would have happened is that Merlin would have had an affair with Morgan Le Fey and she would have turned him into a tree. Not sure if that’s any better.
My favourite line (in which Uther plans to use Merlin’s magic to turn him into the Duke of Cornwall so that he can make love to Cornwall’s wife without her knowing it’s him – unfortunately this effectively rape by magic which, for somebody who claims to be ethical, Merlin is a complete arsehole for agreeing to be part of it) is to Boris, his advisor: “And what do you know about lust for a woman?”. Alas, I guess they cut Boris’ line of “Well, a packet of tissues and some special “me” time”. Which would have solved a LOT of problems for Uther if he only took that line of thinking – but then again, the future of Britain would have been a discarded tissue full of kingly spunk.