What They Say:
In the wake of King Uther’s sudden death, chaos threatens to engulf Britain. When the sorcerer Merlin has visions of a dark future, he installs the young and impetuous Arthur, Uther’s unknown son and heir, who has been raised from birth as a commoner. But Arthur’s cold and ambitious half sister Morgan will fight him to the bitter end, summoning unnatural forces to claim the crown in this epic battle for control. These are dark times indeed for the new king, with Guinevere being the only shining light in Arthur’s harsh world. Faced with profound moral decisions, and the challenge of uniting a kingdom broken by war and steeped in deception, Arthur will be tested beyond imagination. Forget everything you think you know…this is the story of Camelot that has never been told before.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
When Starz brought out their Camelot series, I found myself curious because of the rave reviews that Spartacus had been getting and I wanted to see what they could do with this. But time kept me from being able to sit down on a weekly basis to watch it, so I opted for the Tivo option and had all ten episodes waiting for me after all the other series finales had gone off the air and pro-ceeded to delve into it over two weekends to see if it could live up to things. To be fair to the show, I had just come off of watching the end of A Game Of Thrones and it’s going to be hard for any show to stack up after that, considering how much it accomplishes in a single episode is as much as most other shows do over the course of a full season. But every show is its own, so Camelot has to stand that way and to hold its own.
The first real issue that must be overcome is to remember that the story of Arthur and all that it entails, particularly with Merlin and Morgan, is that it has been altered and built upon in every re-telling in every century since it began, if any of it actually happened of course. Just a simple pe-rusal will remind that certain figures considered highly important to the mythos were added half a millennium after the events happened will make it easier to get into the changes of this particular version since it’s simple another take on it with its own feel and flow. And the show definitely does have its own flow and feel, particularly as it wants to play up the rough, raw violence and sexuality that they believe the time had, and likely did in a lot of ways because of the status of men, women and lineage. Add in the mysticism that Merlin and Morgan possesses and it just adds to the nuance of it all.
The story is simple at its core in that King Uthur is poisoned by his daughter Morgan after she felt she had been sent away so he could marry the wife he has, which she believes to simply be a whore looking for power. The death of Uthur through these means allows Morgan to try and take the reins of power for herself, a hard and difficult thing to do as a woman in any time, While she begins to make progress with this, making an alliance with a former enemy of her fathers in order to cement her position, it all comes tumbling down quickly as Merlin has had a long range plan for all of this. Serving as Uthur’s advisor, he hid away Uthur’s son years ago from both mother and father and he’s grown up as a common man who has seen the hardships of the ordinary citizens.
And now he’s found himself being told that his parents aren’t who they are and that he has the potential to bring a new kind of peace and justice to the country. Arthur has a somewhat bewil-dered look about him during the early part of the season and he doesn’t quite have the presence of a king, even when things turn serious. But he has the right heart for things as we see him brought into the run down castle of Camelot and begins to turn the wheels that Merlin has pro-vided. The initial challenge is in dealing with Morgan and her ally, and it’s dealt with fairly well but still puts Morgan in a position where she backs off yet seeks other routes to power, including the mysticisms that call out to her in the dark of the night. Her story is certainly an interesting one as she holds her own castle and seat of power, forms a subservience of sorts to Arthur, but still plays out her game in a way that keeps Merlin on edge and distrusting while Arthur simply holds out hope that he can gain closeness to his sister.
Over the course of the series, there are plenty of back and forth moments between these two sides, most of the time it’s not always obvious to Arthur and Merlin that it is Morgan that’s pulling the strings. It has a certain subtlety to it that’s pleasantly welcome as she engages in various means to push and prod at Arthur and his holdings across the lands as he tries to earn the respect and loyalty of the commoners. It’s a slow and difficult process on his part, but he has an earnest approach to it and a new style of justice and leadership when it comes to judging things for those that come before him and those that are under his defense. These instances in which he deals with them serves to further his own cause, but it helps them considerably as well as they feel they have someone just to watch over them.
The basics of the series works pretty well and the capture the look and feel that has a natural and earthy feel that goes against the fairy tale glistening castle and symbol hope and purity that we often get. Having Camelot as a former castle of glory that’s covered in vines and natural growth, even an open roof that is used to build an interesting connection between the characters and their world. In a lot of ways, the show plays it straight as you’d expect with the rough commoners looking for some security, eking out a life as best as they can, and a ragtag group of men who slowly start to round out the warriors that will protect Arthur and build a legend. It’s fairly by the numbers in this regard, but it doesn’t make any of them magical or exceptionally skilled so that you’d be shocked. They’re simply very good at what they do and have survived longer than others. The mixture of the world and these men really draws it together well.
Where the show takes some work in getting used to is with the actors assembled to take on these well known roles. Jamie Campbell Bower is a real hard sell as Arthur, but a lot of that comes from either the mass media adaptations of the last couple of decades either showing him as a manly man or a young boy ala Disney kind of stories. Here, Bower brings a commoner feel to it and isn’t the dashing man that many envision, or that of a leader either, but he has the persona that allows him to grow into the role that he’s given. He’s cunning, he works at it and is very hands on, and gives a more authentic vision of what you think would have been a real world version of Arthur. The right kind of presence and charm that doesn’t feel like others in the show that lets him stand out and eventually grow into a king with gravitas.
The really curious choices for me was who they brought in for Merlin and Morgan. I really have liked Joseph Fiennes for many years, especially since Shakespeare in Love, but the role of Merlin never entered my mind. Here, the character is younger and has an almost militaristic view of how to handle things, full of cunning to be sure, but with a nation building mindset we don’t often see. Especially as most incarnations have him as an Gandalf type wizard. He’s far more involved and his use of magic is limited, but that makes it all the more special when it’s used. There’s a strikingly beautiful and crucial scene when it comes to the finding of Excalibur and the entire Lady of the Lake myth. When you take the idea that there’s a kernel of truth in every story, it gives this much more resonance than you’d normally expect and it has a real, haunting beauty to it.
And Eva Green, well, I was enthralled with her presence and beauty when I saw Casino Royale, but I didn’t expect her in this role either. She brings a lot of sensuality and sex here, but also a great deal of cunning and manipulation. She manages to really capture the balance of a strong, hard but caring leader and a woman intent on gaining what is hers. She has a strong evil coursing through her, but she never views herself as the villain, but rather the one that has been wronged all her life and is trying to right all these wrongs. I was surprised by how much nakedness she partakes of in this series though, but that’s hardly a complaint. It positions her more as a woman confident in herself and takes nothing from anyone.
The various knights and others that flesh out the cast are good, particularly Philip Winchester as Leontes as he plays a variant of Lancelot. This is probably the biggest area of divergence as aspects of Lancelot are spread out amongst others, such as Gawain being a far more exceptional warrior, and the lack of serious friendship with Arthur prior to his becoming king. The two hadn’t even met due to the setup of the series. Avoiding some of the standard story ideas of Camelot in this fashion is welcome because it keeps you guessing. But they do let him marry Guinevere, ably played by the very beautiful Tamsin Egerton, and there is a burning passion between her and Arthur. Probably my favorite though is Claire Forlani as Igraine, the biological mother of Arthur. Though I can’t stop seeing her as the girl from Mallrats or Meet Joe Black, she brings soemthing very good here with her character, something from the previous generation that has a vested interest in seeing her son take his place and to keep Morgan from doing so. That she has a growing bond with Merlin that adds something really neat to it, and helps to humanize and connect him to everyone else as well.
I had fairly low expectations for Camelot simply because there have been so many shows and movies and books and comics over the years dealing with the legend. Some go fantastical, some play it by the numbers and others try to give it more of a real world feeling. That’s what we get here, but it manages to work for the most part because of a lot of the divergences it takes and because the cast largely does pull it off. Arthur is the weak point here, but since he is that young, untested kin with a natural talent that he has to hone through the help of others, he generally does pull it off. Some of the pacing is awkward and some characters definitely get lost in the shuffle at times, but I really came to enjoy the rawness of it, the earthy nature and the sex and sensuality of it all. That does ease off as the series goes on, but you know that in a very male dominated place, men took what they wanted and many women knew how to use themselves to gain position and power as well. Keeping that part of the reality to the legend helps to bring both together in an engaging way. I ended up liking this show far more than I expected and hope that it makes it back for a second season.