The legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are transformed from an adventure story into a grand-scale soap opera told from the women’s perspective in TNT mini “The Mists of Avalon.” Filled with incest, sorcery and violence, this adaptation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel has an awful lot going for it on the entertainment front, including Anjelica Huston and Joan Allen as battling sisters. But even great concepts and strong casting give way to mediocre execution. Despite some exciting sequences toward the end, this mini is dominated by a plodding pace and long stretches of muddy storytelling.
This is certainly an epic tale, and while Gavin Scott’s teleplay is thoroughly uninspired, it does manage to cover an enormous amount of ground. Julianna Margulies leads this cast as central figure Morgaine (usually known as Morgan Le Fay), Arthur’s half-sister. Pic begins with Morgaine as a child, and for the first hour focuses on her mother, Igraine (Caroline Goodall), and her two aunts, Morgause (Allen) and Viviane (Huston), the latter the high priestess of the pagan Druids, also known as the Lady of the Lake.
This is a family of the “old religion,” worshipping the Goddess of the Earth who rules in Avalon, a magical isle shrouded, literally, in mist that threatens to make it disappear forever unless its ways are kept alive. In the meantime, those devoted to Avalon also need to collaborate with the Christians in order to stave off attacking Saxons, who threaten to reduce Britain to barbarity.
All of this is background for a series of episodes in which characters do things they know are wrong in the hopes of accomplishing some greater good. Unsurprisingly, it always works out badly. The first such choice belongs to Igraine, who causes the death of her husband, Gerlois (Clive Russell), and couples with Uther (Mark Lewis Jones) to produce Arthur, an heir who’ll be able to unite Christians and pagans. Morgaine goes off to be trained at Avalon by Viviane, while Arthur is raised by Merlin (Michael Byrne). Igraine will eventually regret her decisions and seek the forgiveness of Christianity at a convent, where many of the women eventually end up.
It takes a while for the story to gather much traction. Morgaine and Arthur are tricked into making love, not knowing each other’s identities. Morgaine decides to give birth to the baby, Mordred, but refuses to allow Viviane to raise him as the natural successor to Arthur. Instead, she puts him in the hands of Allen’s Morgause, who early on establishes herself as a selfish villain by placing a curse on Arthur’s bride, Gwenhwyfar (a Welsh spelling of Guinevere), assuring that she won’t bear an heir. Gwenhwyfar (Samantha Mathis) spends most of her time feeling guilty over the fact that she really loves Arthur’s buddy Lancelot (Michael Vartan) and lets Arthur talk her into a brief menage a trois.
Despite its density, this story, packed with constant scheming, is ripe material for rip-roaring TV but somehow director Uli Edel can’t bring it all together. Trying to see multiple sides of characters, he ends up stripping them of personality and confusing the audience as to where these people stand. Strong-willed, oversized characters get reduced to brooding depressives, particularly Morgaine. Margulies, Huston and Allen — certainly a potentially solid triumvirate –mostly stare out into space and make awkward comments about the end of an age, with only occasional expressiveness. They’re also shot mostly as talking heads, and the whole pic, with the exception of an elaborate climactic battle scene, has a staid, awkward feeling, with lots of undefined space and constant reaction shots.
Edel, along with d.p. Vilmos Zsigmond and productions designer Rodger Maus, clearly sought to craft a gritty depiction of the Arthurian era, and the pic has a realistic look mixed in with its picturesque fantasy sequences. But it’s also quite bland, and the same images return over and over with little variation.
This sense of monotony ultimately dooms this pic about the doom of Camelot. Every element of the film seems permeated by a decided slowness, with all the actors speaking at the same stilted, methodical, relentlessly lethargic pace. Lee Holdridge seems to have composed the score according to this same beat. It’s all remarkably lulling.