Reviewer: Charity Bishop
I have never really found a version of the King Arthur legend that I preferred to any other. I had semi high hopes for this series but it never quite worked for me.
Banished in the wake of her father’s marriage to a new queen, Morgan le Fay (Eva Green) is determined to reclaim the throne. Hoping her father will take her back after their estrangement, she gives him one last chance to redeem his previous bad behavior and return her to the line of his succession. At his adamant refusal, she brings about his death and casts his wife, Queen Igraine (Claire Forlani), from the castle. With the kingdom at peril and concerns high over whether or not a woman can lead, she knows her first responsibility must be to form an alliance with her father’s mortal enemy, Lord Lot (James Purefoy). Intrigued at her proposition that they rule side by side, he agrees to help her defend Camelot against potential usurpers, not realizing there is another claimant to the throne.
Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) has no knowledge of his royal ancestry and lives a simple life in the country, constantly teasing his elder brother by stealing all the best women right out from under his nose and pleasantly troubled by dreams of a beautiful woman (Tamsin Egerton). Then a mysterious and slightly sinister man appears on the doorstep of the family hovel and informs him that he is the illegitimate heir of King Uthur. Since the day he helped bring Arthur into the world, Merlin (Joseph Fienness) has not touched magic again. But he will need to learn to master it if it he is to defeat Morgan, assist Arthur in climbing a mountain to draw the sword from the stone, and make certain Camelot rises again…
This cable station has a history of putting controversial content ahead of scripting and while Camelot does suffer from being pointlessly gratuitous, the script is surprisingly solid and the characters are interesting, Merlin most of all as we attempt to discern his motivations and understand his reservations about magic. Fiennes has an excellent grasp on him that makes him likable but also a little sinister and his scenes are among the finest, but it is Eva Green who wins the day with her empathetic but dark Morgan. I know she’s supposed to be the villain but I liked her, far more than I probably should. The real problem here is Arthur. I had hard time liking him and when you're actually rooting for his sister to take the kingdom that shows something is wrong. The writing struggles from being a tad formulaic at times but there are some excellent twists and turns, as well as unusual takes on various legends. (How Merlin comes by Excalibur is chilling and haunting both, as well as their approach to the Lady of the Lake.) The costuming is adequate and imaginative and the setting and backdrop breathtaking (it was filmed in Ireland).
In some regards this series is quite good and in others it fails miserably, mostly because a lot of people dislike the actor who plays Arthur. I never minded him so much as I disliked the figure of Arthur -- he is something of a hypocrite and completely selfish, but does gradually begin to mature as the series unfolds. The manner in which the audience comes to know Morgan is a good one (we never know from one episode to the next whether to hate her or have pity for her) and Merlin is perhaps one of the greatest, most ambiguous depictions of the character in recent film. Alas, Starz' emphasis on turning the story into a soft-core porn romp leaves much to be desired.
Each episode has at least one sex scene or instance of nudity -- some of them have more; a few examples are half-naked women dancing in Morgan's court, us seeing down Guinevere's bodice the first time we meet her, watching Morgan climb in and out of a bathing tub, and various love scenes between different characters. Lot threatens to rape Morgan (she talks him out of it), but Igraine is raped by a prison guard before stabbing him to death. Morgan disguises herself as two different women and seduces Merlin and Arthur on different occasions.
Profanities, a few f-words.
Sometimes gruesome (men are stabbed, shot with arrows, and have their throats slit; we see a woman have her head cut off).
There is a great deal of dark magic. The repercussions are fully explored -- Merlin explains that using magic is dangerous and addictive; whenever he (or Morgan) makes use of it, something bad happens and they lose control. Some viewers may also be offended by the role of an evil nun; she professes a mild amount of faith in God, but has brought up certain girls in her abbey to be servants of the darkness, which manifests in the shape of a wolf. Merlin also concludes in his final moments that "there is no God."