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Saturday, August 27, 2011


One of these days I'm going to sit down and read the original legend of King Arthur just so I'll be able to sort out all the differing cinematic versions of the tale.  It certainly inspires filmmakers to come up with their own interpretations, as we've seen in everything from John Boorman's stunning EXCALIBUR (still my favorite King Arthur movie) to the recent TV series "Merlin."  I guess the good thing about this is that instead of getting the same old rehash every time, with all the elements dutifully falling into place as expected, we're treated to some surprising retellings each with its own unique spin.  "Camelot", a Starz original series, is one of the latest and most interesting of these.

During the ten-episode saga of the DVD set CAMELOT: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (2011) we see an origin story stripped of much of the usual pomp and wizardry, grounded in the grimy, oppressive atmopshere of a Dark Ages-era England struggling to climb out of destitution and disarray.  The murder of King Uther Pendragon prompts the wizard Merlin (Joseph Fiennes, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) to reveal the existence of Uther's bastard son, Arthur, who has been raised by foster parents since being taken from his mother Queen Igraine (Claire Forlani) at birth.  Now barely out of his teens, Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower of the "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" films) is suddenly informed that his destiny is to rule England as heir to the Pendragon throne, with Merlin as his manipulative mentor.

Complicating things is Arthur's half-sister Morgan Pendragon, who believes herself the rightful heir to the crown and will stop at nothing to get it.  With her piercing eyes and haughty, intimidating presence, CASINO ROYALE's Eva Green steals the show as Morgan and is without a doubt its most watchable asset.  She plays the role with such intensity and obvious relish that we almost sympathize with the evil Morgan as she plots against Arthur within the walls of Pendragon castle and conspires to turn his subjects against him.

No gleaming fortress of silver and gold, the Camelot in which Arthur and his men take up residence is a crumbling, overgrown ruin overlooking the sea.  Everything we take for granted in an Arthurian film is developed from the ground up here, including Arthur himself.  As played by Bower, he initially has more in common with Jeff Spicoli than a royal personage and comes off as the sort of arrogant horndog that you might have hated in high school.  It's a long, tough character arc for this callow Arthur before he begins to gain our respect (roughly around the last couple of episodes), especially when he can't keep his hands, among other things, off the bride-to-be of his most gallant warrior, Leontes (Philip Winchester).  The lady in question, of course, is Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton), burdened by guilt after a wedding-day roll on the beach with Arthur.

Playing the role of Merlin even more offbeat than EXCALIBUR's Nicole Williamson, a bald and beardless Joseph Fiennes surprises by being smaller-than-life and eschewing sorcery.  The dark arts, we find, are both addictive and hazardous to one's health, forcing Merlin to rely on his wits more than we're used to.  Fiennes' interpretation of the character takes some getting used to but he began to grow on me after a few episodes.  His counterpart in sorcery, the scheming Morgan, uses her powers with much less restraint and, while suffering the consequences, manages to create a good deal of havoc in Camelot. 

"Camelot" is in no hurry to plunk all the pieces of the story as we know it into place or to reveal them in ways we expect.  Rather than portraying a legend, it depicts gritty, realistic events that will become legend in the retelling.  This is particularly true when we see how the tales of the sword in the stone and the lady of the lake are handled, with Merlin often twisting the facts and making up future history as he goes along. 

With verdant Irish locations, plus great sets and production design, the series looks fantastic.  It does, however, resemble the sort of semi-juvenile television fare seen so often in recent years, yet with occasional attempts at a more adult sensibility that are often jarring.  While most of the episodes would be suitable viewing for kids, there are several softcore sex scenes which seem out of place, especially when, during their romantic beach rendezvous, Arthur drops his pants and starts humping Guinevere like a dog.  And while I must admit finding it quite nice to finally get a look at Eva Green's outstanding assets, it really isn't necessary for "Camelot" to try and come off as adult-oriented entertainment along the lines of the recent "Spartacus" series and indeed sacrifices some of its sense of wonder because of this.

A definite plus is the lack of moronic comedy relief or bad-CGI monsters, with the supernatural elements kept to a more believable minimum and no hinky-looking dragons popping up to pad out the scripts.  Dialogue is modern-sounding but rarely overly so.  The stories are a bit episodic but the overall story arc is enough to bind them together. 

Supporting characters are finely cast, with SinĂ©ad Cusack a standout as Morgan's devious cohort, Sybil, an evil nun riding the aspiring Queen's coattails to the throne, and Claire Forlani as Arthur's true mother, Igraine.  Forlani has a field day in the episode in which Morgan takes on Igraine's physical appearance to cause unrest in Camelot.  Guest stars include Sean Pertwee as Arthur's foster father Ector and James Purefoy as one of Morgan's early allies against Arthur.

While there isn't an abundance of action, "Camelot" does have a number of exciting sword battles that are well-executed.  The season finale, "Reckoning", features a vastly outnumbered Arthur and his men desperately fighting off Morgan's soldiers even as, back in Camelot, she is on the verge of ascending the throne.  Major characters die, and there are enticing hints of what's to come including a foreshadowing of the imminent appearance of Lancelot (who, as we already know, will give Arthur a taste of his own medicine in the heartbreak department). 

There are few nagging cliffhangers as such (I hate season cliffhangers), but one of the most intriguing events in the Arthurian saga is wonderfully and surprisingly depicted in the last scene, setting us up for season two with keen anticipation.  We're also left with the initial core of Arthur's brave knights along with the first wedge of the fabled round table.

The three-disc set from Anchor Bay and Starz is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of eight featurettes including behind-the-scenes, character profiles, scene breakdowns, and bloopers. 

As an addition to the host of King Arthur movies and TV series, CAMELOT: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON holds its own while not quite slashing its way to the front of the pack.  Fans of the legend will definitely want to give it a look.

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