"No-one knows the real story of the great King Arthur of Camelot. Most of what you think you know about Camelot, Guinevere, Lancelot and the evil sorceress known as Morgaine le Fay, is nothing but lies."
So begins the miniseries The Mists of Avalon, adapted from Marion Zimmer Bradley's novel by Gavin Scott, and directed by Uli Edel. Spoken by Julianna Margulies, who plays Morgaine, this puts the viewer on notice than Bradley's vision of Camelot is far removed from her predecessor, Thomas Malory. In Malory's Camelot, men ruled, and women were only the means by which they fell from grace or proved their chivalry. In Bradley's Camelot, the women are on an equal footing, and often direct events.
Translating such an immense book as The Mists of Avalon to the small screen cannot have been easy. Yet Scott achieved the almost impossible while losing none of the majesty and glory of the original. Add to that, the incredible cinematography and costume design, and Edel's sensitive direction, and this made for TV movie can be viewed as a work of art in its own right.
The star is undoubtedly the magnificent Anjelica Huston as the High Priestess Vivianne of Avalon. Huston's legendary beauty is not dimmed but softened by the years, and she brings an air of command and true nobility to the role. Vivianne is the eldest of three sisters touched by the mystical Isle of Avalon; Igraine is the wife of Gorloise, fated to be the mother of Arthur; Morgause becomes the wife of King Lot of Orkney, and is regarded by some Arthurians as the true villain of the piece, as she is here.
As Igraine, Caroline Goodall has a beautifully medieval presence. She looks ethereally pre-Raphaelite in the scenes following the death of Uther. As Morgause, Joan Allen is bewitchingly wicked, the youngest sister jealous of Vivianne's power and Igraine's destiny. Here she loses every shred of the audience's sympathy when she leaves a baby to die in the cold. But Allen is never less than mesmerizing.
But what really makes this miniseries special are the performances of Julianna Margulies and Edward Atteron as the adult Morgaine and Arthur, and Tamsin Egerton and Freddie Highmore as the children. These four actors present a powerful and moving portrayal of the love between Morgaine and her `little brother Arthur'. Margulies, in particular, brings a touching emotional depth to her role that is utterly convincing.
The movie only falters with the introduction of Lancelot and Guinevere, although some Arthurian buffs may justifiably say this happens every time. The only actor ever to get Lancelot right was Franco Nero in the musical Camelot - like most of the others, Michael Vartan seems a bit wet, and Samantha Mathis as Guinevere only improves when some of the make up is scraped off. Otherwise there is no chemistry between them at all.
Mathis has the more interesting role, however. The Queen of Camelot is not portrayed here as the tragic lovelorn heroine, but more as a constipated little prig who deserves all she gets.
The notorious threesome between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere is actually quite a tender scene, but it's a view of Camelot that Malory certainly never considered!
Fortunately for the viewer, it's Morgaine and Vivianne's story, and Huston and Margulies never fail once to deliver performances full of passion and power. Sparks fly in their scenes together, the meshing of two great actresses with roles to die for.
I did not expect much of The Mists of Avalon when I first watched it, and I am happy to report that I could not have been more wrong. I have watched it many times since, and it never fails to draw me into its mystical, magical world.
I purchased this DVD with my own funds.
The book by Marion Zimmer Bradley:
The Mists of Avalon
The mini series:
The Mists of Avalon