The legend of King Arthur has been retold many times in print and on film. The consistent theme in the various adaptations has been the male point of view. In Uli Edel’s adaptation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular novel The Mists of Avalon is different because the story of the Arthurian legend is told through the perspective of the women in the story, namely Morgaine (a so-so Julianna Margulies), King Arthur’s powerful sorceress sister.
Produced by TNT in 2001, the miniseries shows the story of the battle in England – the Saxons are threatening to conquer Britain. In the sprawling three hours, the script – penned by Gavin Scott – throws a lot at the audience: murder, violence, incest, usurpation, Pagan rituals, religious warfare. It’s dizzying and at times, a bit overwhelming to try and take it all in.
As a protagonist, Morgain’s an interesting choice. A conflicted and complex woman, she come of age, being raised in the traditions of the Goddess. She’s a seer with powers to see into the future. Taken away from her mother at an early age, she’s groomed to be a priestess by Vivian, Lady of the Lake (a commanding Angelica Huston), the high priestess who is working to protect Avalon from the impending invasion of the Saxons.
Narrated by Morgain, the story takes some tragic turns. The story is plodding and episodic, each sequence working as a separate mini-story (it’s clear when watching the film in its entirety that it’s meant to be viewed in 40-minute increments). Some of the sequences work better than others, and the first half of the film is much more compelling than the second half, which includes elements of soap opera. While watching Morgain’s development and her evolution from wide-eyed child to a wise if calculating woman, we see Britain go through some important changes. Along with Vivian, she also has to contend with her aunt, Morgause (Joan Allen, who approaches scene-chewing camp), a frustrated and duplicitous woman whose machinations has tragic repercussions later on in the film.
For a television miniseries, the production values are impressive. The budgets for TNT made-for-TV movies must’ve been very generous because the scenery is often breathtaking. The scenes on the lake when Morgain is riding on a boat toward Avalon are gorgeous with swirling fog that adds atmosphere. Unfortunately, Edel doesn’t trust in subtly and the addition of the New Agey film score (which includes chanting by Celtic musician Loreena McKennitt) that pushes the film into Enya music video territory.
There are lots of battle scenes, and the violence isn’t for the squeamish – in one scene when Vivian and Morgain return to Camelot, the place is a post-apocalyptic mess with corpses strewn about and severed heads gruesomely impaled on spikes. The fight sequences are expertly filmed and superbly choreographed.
At a little over three hours, The Mists of Avalon drags towards the end. Because every character is full of contradictory impulses and allegiances, it’s difficult to root for anyone – even Morgain, the most sympathetic of the characters, has dark shadings and specious impulses. Still if one chops up the film in installments, then it’s a solid bit of entertainment.