Made originally as an all-star miniseries of sorts for television, the video version of Merlin is ambitious. Really ambitious. Jeez–just look at the cast list: Sam Neill, Sir John Gielgud, Helena Bonham Carter, James Earl Jones, Isabella Rossellini–it’s a Hollywood ‘Dream Team’. With all this star-power, one would expect something truly great, even if it was on TV. So what if the Arthurian legends have been hashed and re-hashed a thousand times? The enigmatic story of Camelot remains fascinating. To its credit, Merlin chooses to treat its telling of the legend in a slightly different way: from the perspective of the sorcerer himself — Sam Neill.
Sure, there is lots of unwelcome meddling with Arthurian myth. Tons of it. But Steve Barron directs Merlin with a surreal and likable hand, thoroughly at home in a fantasy world, filling the film with lots of eccentric characters and above-average special effects. Some of the characters are annoyingly campy, especially evil Queen Mab of the Sidhe (Miranda Richardson), who dresses like Elvira and speaks in an irritating high-pitched hiss. In comparison, Martin Short’s Frik, Mab’s pointy-eared minion, handles the camp in his character with delightful dexterity.
Sam Neill is a hell of an actor. And he does justice to the Merlin of the script: an all-too-human, reluctant sorcerer who tries throughout the film to guide everyone right. The most loyal subject of the Court, Merlin survives the civil wars, invasions, and impending Christianity troubling his homeland–even when it means he must choose between his loyalty and his love for the beautiful Nimue (Isabella Rossallini). In the beginning of the film, the Old Merlin who is narrating the tale and looking back on his life, recommends, “Above all, never give advice.” Too bad he didn’t know that sooner. Right from the start, Merlin rebels against Mab and her tutelage in magic, laying the groundwork for a duel between the two. In the process, he draws her attack to his beloved Arthur (Paul Curran). With Mab’s meddling, Arthur unwittingly impregnates his own sister Morgan Le Fey (Bonham Carter) as a youth, sealing his own eventual downfall. “Aunty’ Mab dotes on the illegitimate–and perfectly loathsome–child produced by the union, Mordred, who is kept in secret until he is old enough to challenge Arthur for kingship. Merlin screws up big-time (with some mistaken guidance by the Lady of the Lake) when he advises King Arthur to choose Sir Lancelot from his Court to watch out for the queen and Camelot while he goes off questing for the Holy Grail. Years pass; Guinevere betrays Arthur with Lancelot and, by falling under the influence of Christianity, lays the groundwork for the king’s ruin. By the time the Saxons (and Christians) threaten Arthur on his return from his quest, Mordred (Jason Done) appears, and both are slain as Merlin helplessly watches Camelot go down in flames. This production’s Merlin is obviously not infallible, and by rejecting magic at every turn, he tries to seem as human as possible. Neill is right on target, where any lesser actor would make Merlin perfectly unbearable to watch.
Perhaps Richardson’s Queen Mab would have been less hampered without the horrid costuming and curdling rasp. Helena Bonham Carter, who is such a wonderful character actress, should have played Mab, instead of being wasted on the lesser part of Morgan Le Fey. Anyone who has watched Bonham Carter as Marla, the neurotic self-help-group junkie in Fight Club, would agree hands-down. Rutger Hauer and the late Sir John Gielgud both play their short roles as warring kings adequately enough. And as for James Earl Jones’ appearance, I had to watch the movie nearly three times to realize that he was not ‘literally’ a character, but the voice of the Mountain King who accepts the keeping of Excalibre until Arthur can claim it. Damn. I wouldn’t call a talking mountain a main character, so downplay his ‘starring role’, please! And then there is Merlin’s horse, Rupert, who occasionally offers commentary in a Mister Ed dialect. Wil-l-l-bur!
As a made-for-television flick, Merlin is watchable fantasy fun. But if you want any fidelity to the original Arthurian legends, f’get-about-it! It ain’t gonna happen in this movie. Still, there aren’t tons of fantasy pieces on television that don’t require a barf-bag, so enjoy what you can from this one–particularly the special effects. The fairies in the magic woods are delightful, and so is the early scene where young Merlin is asleep in a hollow tree, where he meets Nimue for the first time and discovers his powers. Of course, Evil Queen Mab snatches Nimue from Merlin for revenge and scars her for life, but she is restored by Merlin’s love and last act of magic, to her youth. Merlin lives happily ever after with her. Awwwww.
If you are a faithful soul educated in the original myths and folklore seeking authenticity, don’t rent this film. Sam Neill’s Merlin bears little resemblance to the Merlin in the Arthurian myths–but then, at least the story isn’t the well-threshed sludge we’ve become so used to seeing on the subject. Neill rises to the challenge. But for nit-pickers like me who are in love with the legends of Merlin, just keep repeating: ‘It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.’
It just galls me, that’s all. All fun aside, what kind of wimp would refuse to use his magic? Merlin choosing to be a bumbling human instead of a Mage? What kind of potion has he been drinking? And worst of all, Neill’s Merlin is against the Old Ways entirely. Say it ain’t so! Merlin has always been, above all else, the Archetype of the Wise Sorcerer, and guardian of ancient knowledge. Many interpretations of the myths insist that Merlin was King Arthur’s Druid, and this would not seem unlikely. But yes, it just plain bothers me that the old Pagan ways are always equated with evil and darkness, not just in Merlin. Sigh.
At the film’s opening, Merlin says sadly that in his day, magic was much more commonplace than it is today, and believed in deeply. Amen! Yet at the conclusion of the same picture, Merlin ends his feud with Mab by declaring that if he stops believing in her–and the Old Ways–she will simply cease to exist, and the world of magic with her. ‘Righteousness’ prevails, and even the sorcerers drop their wands placidly. All told, Merlin is just another (if minor) example of how mainstream society has re-written and decimated our folklore. Sure, I know, Merlin is ‘only’ a movie, and it’s just for fun. But films are the ever-changing glass in which society mirrors itself. Who says we don’t need magic in our world today? If ever we needed it, it’s now.