The Mists of Avalon

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Culture, Visual

As a bit of a prelude, let me mention that the Sci-Fi channel is apparently run by imbeciles. Instead of showing Heroes, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica last friday, they decided to run a bunch of Sci-Fi original pictures that are so unoriginal they wouldn’t even be entertaining fodder for Mystery Science Theater.

Since my TiVo wasn’t busy for that three hour block I decided to look around to see what else was showing around that time and ran across The Mists of Avalon. I’d heard of the series of books from a few years back, and also heard that it was made into a TNT miniseries. Typically these adapted miniseries are crummy, but, well, it’s hard to resist King Arthur. Not to mention that my osmosis of information about the books told me that this was a heavily female-dominated narrative and the promise of plenty of attractive women swooshing around in beautiful dresses makes an enticing prospect. So I queued it up and watched it over this weekend.

Overall, I had a good time watching The Mists of Avalon. Don’t confuse that with saying that the movie/miniseries was good — It wasn’t. Still, I found it entertaining enough to watch, humorous where it was bad, and with just barely enough eye-candy to keep me interested. The only real draws here are Juliana Margulies as Morgaine, Samantha Mathis as Gweneviere (Gwenwyfar), and Joan Allen who plays Morgeuse (Morgoose? Morgouse? Morguse?). Juliana isn’t someone I consider particularly attractive generally speaking, but she has her moments, particularly in the second half of the movie/series. Gwenevere is very pretty, though not really striking, but she does have better costumes than Juliana. Morgeuse is also quite attractive, but she’s getting big bonus points for being a redhead in the film.

The whole thing starts off with narration about how “Everything you know about the Legend of King Arthur is wrong” and then drags on and on and on. That line alone was enough to elicit a chuckle from me. That’s a tough challenge to live up to for a made-for-TV movie, undoubtedly one it would fail to meet. The first real scenes we see are of our main character, Morgane Le Fey, her mother, Igraine, and her aunt Morgeuse. Morgane is a young child, looking about five or six. The actress playing Igraine is stately but not really attractive — My fantasy that this movie was going to be a parade of beautiful women in beautiful clothing is already on the rocks. Igrayne definitely shows her age, and the set itself is very humble for the wife of a nobleman. It’s clear this movie is coming more from the realism/historicism school than the romantic school of Arthurian retellings. What’s unusual is that even with the movie’s attempt to emphasize realism/historicism, it simultaneously attempts to incorporate magic as a real part of the narrative. A tough mix to pull off, and it comes off as pretty hokey.

My major problem with this film comes as a result of this. Putting magic side by side with an attempt at historicism is, before anything else, going to be a strained relationship. Things are made much worse though in that the magic in the film is justified as being part of some nebulous “Mother Goddess” worship. This is a purely modern invention and blows any credibility I place in the film. The funny part of the whole thing is that even though the idea behind the contrived “Goddess” worship is to create some sort of unified religio-political movement that basks in a bunch of platitudes about love and nurturing and motherhood, as depicted in the movie the “Goddess” religion ends up looking pretty darn ruthless and inhumane.

Despite its attempts to be a “feminist” narrative and to subvert the traditional Arthurian legend, what really ends up happening is that responsibility merely is shifted — In the traditional Arthurian legends, Morgaine is a character deeply involved in the downfall of Camelot. In The Mists of Avalon that responsibility is shrugged off onto Morgeuse, who assumes the “witch/enchantress” role that Morgaine typically fits into. Aside from this one role-shift, there don’t seem to be many significant differences between The Mists of Avalon and other Arthurian legends. You’ve still got Lancelot and Gweneviere having their affair, Mordred seeking to usurp Arthur. The major differences are all fairly cosmetic as far as affecting the flow of the story goes, merely seeking to add soap-opera levels of angst and drama to what already existed. For something that claimed that everything I knew about Arthur was wrong, this is a disappointment.

In any case, there were some definite moments. At its best it reminded me of the A Game of Thrones D&D game that I was involved in a few months ago. Though fleeting, the few times when imagination and reality were in sync… That is worth it.

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