Monday, 11 April 2011

TV Preview: Camelot

Episode One - Homecoming

I was primed for another, more adult take on the Arthurian legend. I've not had any interest in the BBC Saturday, tea-time, child/family friendly version called Merlin. I've always been more of a fan of the Morte D'Arthur poem and it's movie translation in John Boorman's excellent Excalibur. In my view the movie has never been bettered, in the same way that Robin of Sherwood has never been bettered as a version of the Robin Hood story.

With early scuttle-butt suggesting that Camelot was nearer Bernard Cornwell's initially superb trilogy of Warlord books (the first book was great but I found the subsequent two underwhelming), I was a keen viewer.

Filmed in Ireland with a healthy dose of CGI, the series looks the part. It's refreshing to see a version of the legend on screen during the Dark Ages, for once. So, initially, to the cast:

The episode begins with Morgan (a version of Morgana, no doubt) played by the sultry actress Eva Green. Any objective reviewing goes out of the window when thinking about her. Not only is she achingly sexy, she's also a world-class actress. For me, her role as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale was perfect. In Camelot, Morgan returns to her father's castle and enacts revenge for her being kept in a monastery for 15 years. This is carried out by poisoning King Uther. She then takes over the Castle, using a local Warlord, King Lot, played by the reliable James Purefoy (Solomon Kane, Rome) as muscle and back up. Morgan banishes the King's wife, not knowing that she had, and gave up, a son; Arthur. James Purefoy is great when he plays the bad guy; all over blown confidence and swagger. He doesn't disappoint in Camelot.
To counter Morgan's claim on the throne, Uther's advisor Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) aims to embed Arthur as the true King of England that will unite all the bickering kingdoms under one monarch. Fiennes looks like he's having great fun playing the bald warrior monk-like Merlin: Far from the ordinary and bored-looking performance he turned in on the show Flash-Forward, he plays Merlin with enthusiasm and conviction.

Moody but fun Merlin played by Joseph Fiennes

Arthur is played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who I'm reliably informed is in the Twiglite saga of vampire films. At first look, I was disappointed. We first see him making out with a stunning looking actress, that turns out to be his brother Kay's girlfriend. Here is where the trouble lies within, at least, the first three episodes. In an attempt to rival HBO's Sword and sex epics, Arthur is portrayed as a character who's sexual appetites seem to get in the way of his honour and duty. I wouldn't want the character to be too whiter than white but as we'll see in episodes 2 and 3, there's something too contrived about Arthur's romances. See my review of Episode 3 for more detail. I put it down to the writer's approaching the era with too much 21st century sensibility.

Arthur in action

Despite the fact that Campbell Bower has naturally been chosen for his looks, he shows later in this episode that he has the gravitas and believability of a leader.
His mother is played by Clare Forlani. I feel my age now that Forlani is old enough to play the Mother of a sixteen year old (or whatever age Arthur is supposed to be). Was it really that long ago that I saw her in Mallrats, and The Rock? Yes, it was.
Arthur was fostered, having been given to his foster parents by Merlin. Ector (played by Sean Pertwee) raised Arthur with a strong moral compass (except for lusting after the women). Sean Pertwee is, yet again, perfectly cast. Together with Purefoy and Fiennes, it's the older generation of actors that shine through the initial episodes.

Chris Chibnall, the show runner of Camelot has worked on Doctor Who, Torchwood and Life on Mars. His pedigree holds him in good stead for this show. There are hints of magic in Camelot's world. I'll go out on a limb and say that Morgan's ability to shift into her younger self is definitely dark magic and not just an illusion within the show. Merlin's full abilities are not explored so much in this inaugural episode, other than he appears to not have aged in a long time.

Episode Two - The Sword and The Crown

To make a series about the Arthurian legend interesting, the makers of that show have to find some different ways of putting the story onscreen that is both recognisable and fresh enough to make viewers want to return. For me, the cast is a main draw, the production values are high enough, and the adult tone is, on the whole, welcome. That's not to say that it's perfect. Episode 2 showed signs where this series might fall flat on it's ass. I found the scenes with Arthur and Guinevere, in both episodes 2 and 3 faintly ridiculous.

Arthur's foster mother was murdered by King Lot, last episode. Ector was nowhere to be seen, which begged the question; has Sean Pertwee, the serial victim, been dispatched off screen? That would have sucked! With events from the previous episode still fresh, Arthur is doubting that he can take on the responsibility of leader with a tragedy hanging over him so soon after his intent to rule. To get Arthur to up his game and submerge into the leader he promises to be, Merlin sets a challenge for Arthur. He convinces Arthur to retrieve the "Sword of Mars" that is located high up on a rock face waterfall. Reminding me of a line in the David Lynch movie "Dune", previous attempts have failed; they've tried and died as opposed to tried and failed.
The location makes the attempt look a little odd as I would have thought that there could have been an easier way of retrieving the sword. Merlin doesn't so much give Arthur the solution to getting the sword as hinting at it though something he says. Arthur manages to scale the rocks, push in the sword and pull it out, and then fall to the water below. The scene is quite tense and an innovative way in showing the sword in the stone aspect of the legend. The resulting injury takes him out of the story for a while and allows the writers to concentrate on the rest of the plot.

King Lot and Morgan's alliance seems to be crumbling. Perhaps, if Morgan hadn't put out to Lot so quickly, he might have been less cocky. A spat results in Morgan calling Lot the "C  word" in front of his men, the price for which he ties her to a stake and leaves her out  overnight. Here, we get more of the hints that Morgan intends to serve a higher, darker, power but the union between her and the darker power hasn't quite happened yet.

Guinevere is introduced in a scene at the beach. She is shown emerging from the sea (Lady in the Lake parallel?) and in a surprise twist later turns out to be the betrothed to Arthur's most trusted and loyal soldier, Leontes (played solidly by Philip Winchester).

The episode builds up to Arthur's coronation and Morgan changes her strategy by warning Camelot that King Lot intends to invade and conquer the castle at anytime. Arthur recognises disguised henchmen and a short and bloody battle ensues in the main hall.

Once again, Sean Pertwee exits a production in a fitting, dramatic manner that suggests he is far too busy doing voice overs to remain any longer than he has to. One of my favourite British actors, he has gassed himself to death in the TV series Chancer (my first glimpse of this superb actor), had his guts ripped out in Dog Soldiers, and been strung up, burnt alive and eaten in the movie Doomsday. I name only a few of the shows where he has been dispatched far too early. In Camelot, he confronts Lot in a terrific scene. Ector asks about his wife's untimely death at Lot's hand. The warlord feigns a lack of interest, as if he carried out such deeds so often that even the mother of a future king is irrelevant. Lot seems uninterested and sees Ector as no threat at all; to the point where it looks as if he'll let Ector live. But, naturally, Ector will not let Lot move forward. Using his experience and guile, Lot easily gets the better of Ector and spears him in the gut; except that Ector makes good use of the killing stroke by pulling Lot in close and dispatching him. Both actors, will be missed but go out in style.

The episode ends with Morgan going back to the forest to seek out the dark power that resides there. Here she confronts a Black Wolf before she slips her dress off, standing naked before the end titles roll; not an unweelcome sight and a great time to be an Eva Green fan.
The always watchable Eva Green
The pretty but vacuous Tamsin Egerton

Episode Three - Guinevere

Sadly, some of the writing flaws open up a bit in this one.

We had the introduction of Guinevere last episode with an odd introduction by the sea and an uncomfortably amateurish scene on a balcony where Tamsin Egerton plays an exchange between Arthur and her character as if she was chatting up a guy in a bar or nightclub. Egerton is undeniably pretty (if a little too skinny looking at times) but is far too contemporary in my view. Watching her, I felt as if she was reading for a part in Hollyoaks and not a drama set in the Dark Ages. It's not just Egerton's fault as the screenplay uses words like "wobble" when relating to Guinevere's doubts about marrying Leontes amoungst other examples. I don't expect a Deadwood approach; to mimicking the style of talking in the Dark Ages - that'd be ridiculous - but the modernistic approach to writing, a couple of times, took me out of the show.

This episode is all about lust, longing and wanting. Arthur thinks he has fallen for Guinevere. She is to be married to Leontes sooner, now, rather than later because a wedding would be good for the country, so sayeth Merlin. I've heard that somewhere before...
Morgan wants to seduce Merlin, presumably for his knowledge and get to know her brother more, which includes getting into his head, literally. Merlin is showing the first signs of interest in Morgan by worrying about the cost of her using dark magic.

It's only in this episode that I noticed more of a rush to push elements of the story forward; it's almost as if the makers thought "we might not get a second season". The love triangle between Leontes, Arthur and Guinevere didn't work for me. Why is Arthur acting like a kid in heat over one dream? Why is Guinevere ready to throw everything away because of the attention of the "King" only to submit to one shag and then protest that it was a one-time thing. Using my earlier analogy; the scene of the pair screwing up against a cave entrance was just a more flowery scene of a couple enjoying a knee-trembler in the back alley behind a club. It didn't feel right in context.

Leontes and Guinevere have been betrothed for three years and she gives her virginity to Arthur! This is another cack-handed couple of scenes where Guinevere gets hold of some blood to then splash it on the bed after sex with her now husband. I found myself laughing at this, it was so rubbish, especially when Leontes comes back from having a pee to look at the blood with a self-satisfied smirk. Cringe or laugh? I'll leave it to you to decide.

Instead of showing us scenes of Leontes and Guinevere early on, to give more dimension to their relationship and perhaps giving us clues as to why she gives it up to Arthur so easily, instead Leontes (is he Lancelot?) and Kay go off to find Gawain, a noble and dedicated warrior. The pair have to persuade Gawain to fight for Arthur, but Gawain has decided he has had enough of warlord kings. He's convinced to go to Camelot if he is tutored how to read and write; bargain!
Arthur and his sister Morgan strangely and briefly friends

Arthur and Merlin had travelled to the Pendragon castle upon Morgan's invitation. This was another plot point that didn't ring true. Not five minutes ago, Morgan had tried to take the throne, using a warlord that ended up killing Arthur's mother and father. As Morgan had warned Camelot that Lot was on his way, last episode, it seems that everything's now ok and she can be trusted. What? You're kidding? Merlin learns that Morgan killed her father by transmuting into her younger self and poisoning him. Now, this I can understand as Morgan inadvertently served Merlin's purpose by removing Uther from the throne, but Merlin lets Morgan capture him a little too easily after that, so she can cut his toenails as ingredients for one of her spells.
Morgan's drugging of Arthur was less surprising as he acted like the Muppet King all episode. Like a co-ed getting the date rape drug at a party, Arthur drinks the ale and finds himself a bit sleepy. Either that or he’s a lightweight and can’t handle his drink. Here, she takes a sample of his blood for another spell.
Merlin and Arthur then return to Camelot for the wedding. Arthur spends his time looking like a blonde Anakin Skywalker sulking about the thing and making it quite clear that he's unhappy.

Quite how this will effect the future story remains to be seen. Has the love triangle subverted the Lancelot part of the story we all know? If so, it makes Arthur far more flawed than in previous incarnations of the story. This could work well, but it didn't during this hour of story. Presumably, now Morgan knows Arthur's thoughts about Guinevere, she can exploit them. Morgan's control of Merlin and his powers seems inevitable.

Episode three was easily the worst so far and I hope it was a bridge show to get key plot elements out of the way. I had given Jamie Campbell Bower the benefit of the doubt. It’s too early to say if he’s a weak link. I blame the writers for this one.

Eva Green nudity rating: Sadly, nil in this one.

No comments: