17 February 2000 | krumski
Great script allows for great entertainment
This is one of the best made for TV movies I've ever seen - surprisingly good, in fact. What made it so entertaining was the script. Some people have gone on about the special effects, but they're no big deal - impressive for television, perhaps, but cheesy by any other standard. No, what makes this movie work so well is the unique way in which the familiar elements of the Camelot story have been reconfigured. Using Merlin as a point of departure and actually delving into *his* backstory - rather than Arthur's - I don't think I've seen this done anywhere else (admittedly, I'm no Arthurian scholar, but I have read some of the seminal works, such as Mallory's "Morte d'Arthur," Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," and T.H. White's "The Once and Future King"). "Merlin," from what I can see, tells a story that's totally new, and provides a fresh take on the events and meanings of the Camelot tale. Basically, Merlin's lifelong struggle with Queen Mab here represents the struggle of Christianity to take hold in Britain, versus the influence of the "ancient" ways, such as witchcraft, superstition and local custom. No matter what you think of this as allegory, it provides a useful and intriguing "spine" on which to hang all the other familiar stories from the Arthurian legend, which are well told and presented. Naturally, time constraints prevent the movie from going into detail on any single story - but the piece certainly whets one's appetite for more, and that's perhaps the surest indication of the movie's success.
The lead roles are all well-handled. Sam Neill brings a kind of weary dignity to Merlin; he's champion of the good, but he's tired of it all, longs for the battle to just be over. As Mab, Miranda Richardson camps it up wonderfully, and is truly creepy besides. Martin Short and Helena Bonham Carter have one of the most affecting scenes I've ever seen in a TV movie (if you see it, you'll know which one I mean).
Overall there's a lack of humor, and it sometimes feels as if the piece is rushing ahead just to get everything in, but these are very minor quibbles. The wonderful script holds everything together and keeps you wondering - no matter how well you might know the Camelot story - just what is going to happen next.