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The Mists Of Avalon (2001)
Director: Uli Edel

review by Steven Hampton

With King Arthur (2004) at the cinemas now, it's a good time to look back at this three-hour Mark Wolper production for TNT. With a teleplay by Gavin Scott adapting Marion Zimmer Bradley's feminist-oriented bestseller for the small screen, The Mists Of Avalon retells the familiar Camelot story of Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, and Excalibur but tackles the mythic fantasy saga from the viewpoints of legendary women: high priestess Viviane (Anjelica Huston, The Witches), Morgause (Joan Allen, Face/Off), Arthur's sister Morgaine (Julianna Margulies, ER), and Gwenhwyfar (Samantha Mathis, Broken Arrow).

Viviane is the Lady of the Lake who guards entry to the invisible Avalon, a timeless British island forever shrouded in mist. Along with seer Igraine (Caroline Goodall) and Merlin (Michael Byrne), the formidable Viviane strives to maintain the primacy of Avalon as the focus of power in the land, but the people's drift towards a church of one god challenges her authority. Pagan ritual magic collides headlong with Christian beliefs to form a thematic backdrop for the complex story. It's the mother goddess versus the father saviour, played out high-church ceremonies, druid rites, in bedchambers and castle halls and on spectacular battlefields. Adultery, incest, scheming bitch-witches, sinister spinsters, wicked stepparents, horrifically cruel offspring, lusty couplings and bloodletting aplenty, this is the grand old Arthurian saga like you've never quite seen it before. We see more of Arthur's childhood that usual, and his bond to sibling and heroine Morgaine is one of this version's most interesting tropes.

Edward Atterton portrays the adult Arthur, and acquits himself well enough in the role, even if he lacks the acting strength to match any of the female stars. Michael Vartan (from TV series, Alias) is fine as the loyal yet flawed Lancelot, while Hans Matheson is excellent as the supremely evil Mordred, raised by the ambitious Morgause. In the later chapters, Morgaine is reunited with her long lost brother, only to be tricked into marrying honest Welsh King Uriens (David Calder) - even though she really fancies Uriens' son Accolon (Ian Duncan)! Instead of simply playing the royal temptress who draws Lancelot into betraying his king, Gwenhwyfar (here's yet another alternative spelling of Guinevere) enjoys a ménage à trois with Arthur's consent and Lancelot's cooperation, yet becomes the scourge of Camelot in other ways, as much a threat and danger to Arthur's reign and happiness as the antagonistic Morgan Le Fay is usually portrayed in other Arthurian legends. Considering the perspective of this drama, then, perhaps it's to be expected that Viviane embodies the magic power and has a greater presence than Merlin, but it's a surprise that mute Raven (Klára Issová), one of the sisters of Avalon, has more impact on the story than macho Gawain (Noah Huntley), while the seemingly essential subplot of Perceval's noble quest is wholly neglected, and the famed Holy Grail never gets a mention here at all!

The Mists Of Avalon fails to equal the grandiose sweep of John Boorman's magnificent Excalibur (1981), but it succeeds as both an example of epic storytelling in the TV miniseries format and as thought-provoking alternative to the frequently cloying romanticised versions of Arthurian myth. If it lacks the spirited colour of First Knight (1995), this certainly has more wit and wonder on display than shallow offerings like Cornel Wilde's Sword Of Lancelot (1963).

Warner's Region 1 DVD is presented in widescreen format (aspect ratio 1.85:1), enhanced for 16:9 TV sets, with Dolby surround 5.1 sound in English and French plus subtitles in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Special features on the unrated disc are additional scenes, a photo gallery, storyboards, costume and production designs, cast profiles, and a nifty Arthurian family tree.
The Mists of Avalon

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