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TV REVIEW: CAMELOT
Episode 1.01 & 1.02
POSTED 3:57pm | 06 APRIL 2011
Camelot Poster
Looking to repeat the success of their recent Spartacus television series and cash in on the current popularity of costumed soap operas, American premium cable channel Starz has given us a new interpretation of the King Arthur legend with Camelot, created by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors) and Chris Chibnall (Torchwood, Law & Order: UK), and starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, FlashForward) and Eva Green (The Dreamers, Casino Royale).

Set in medieval Britain, the story embraces a lot of the Arthurian legend, from the boy who pulls the sword from the stone to become king, his trusted wizard-friend Merlin, and of course the establishment of his court at Camelot. Arthur is played by relative newcomer Jamie Campbell Bower, with Fiennes as a very prominent Merlin, and Green as Arthur's evil witch step-sister Morgan. Together they're a solid core trio that seem more than capable of carrying the series, if not perhaps a little over-qualified for this type of soapy drama (Green especially).

The Story Of Episodes 1 & 2

The series starts with the death of King Uther at the hands of his exiled daughter Morgan, who feels it's about time she inherited the crown after 15 years at a nunnery (during which time she was most likely studying witchcraft instead), and the resulting competition from rival warlords for his throne. Unbeknownst to most though, Uther sired a son out of wedlock some 18 years earlier with the lady Igraine (Claire Forlani) and had Merlin hide him with Ector (Sean Pertwee) and his wife - simple peasant farmers - who raised him as their own son alongside their first born, Kay (Peter Mooney). Being a male Arthur is the next legitimate heir to the throne, so Merlin sets out to whisk the young boy away from his idyllic lifestyle and loving family, and help him fulfil his destiny of becoming king of the realm. Meanwhile, Morgan forms an uneasy alliance with Uther's greatest enemy - King Lot (James Purefoy, Rome) - in the hopes that together they can secure the throne and eliminate the threat Arthur poses.

The majority of the first two episodes then deal with Arthur coming to accept his destiny, the establishment of his court at the ageing castle of Camelot, his retrieval of the sword in the stone, and his eventual crowning while Lot and Morgan scheme to prevent it.

Production

Costume and set design is typically excellent (as is usual with most British costume dramas) with a strong focus on gritty realism. Clothes are stained with dirt and even the possessions of royalty are dull and have the appearance of being crafted by 6th century crafters. The atmosphere created by this aesthetic genuinely adds to the story being told. This is let down by the direction (from usually dependable TV director Ciaran Donnelly) and, more surprisingly, the writing of Michael Hirst.

I don't know who to blame more - the characterisation of Arthur as the lazy playboy farmer and reluctant king, who needs constant assistance from his much more capable brother and Merlin to be an even half-useful potential monarch, means that his eventual transformation into the king of legend is already ringing mighty hollow. How someone of such obvious low aptitude, courage, and conviction can become a king just because Merlin had a vision isn't really the best place to start and doesn't really endear Arthur to the audience a great deal.

Joseph Fiennes as Merlin
Or is it the direction, that is so uneven as to allow Joseph Fiennes to have such a commanding presence and serious attitude, playing a very brooding version of Merlin, and on the other hand bring in James Purefoy and allow him to ham it up so much that it feels like a Sunday matinee whenever he is on screen. Neither performance is wrong or bad - in fact both are quite fun to watch - but it means there is no consistency in mood, leaving the viewer feeling a little lost as to what exactly the show is attempting to be. A down-and-dirty re-telling of Arthurian legend or the serialised version of Monty Python's Spamelot?

The best part of the production is the excellent locations and cinematography by Joel Ransom (who's done some excellent work in the past on the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, Band of Brothers, and The X-Files) and the music from brothers Jeff and Mychael Danna, which despite the writing and direction give the series it's strongest sense of feel and character.

Overall, the production is a sad mixed bag of the brilliant and the terrible, leaving an uneven feeling and questions as to why certain things were allowed to happen.

Critical Opinion

Despite the wildly uneven production Camelot is far from un-enjoyable. A healthy dose of sex, violence, and political intrigue means it follows closely the soap/drama formula of The Tudors and Spartacus, but doesn't go to the extremes that those shows did. It leaves me wondering if the legend of King Arthur was really the right choice of story for this type of show, as a lot of the mentioned formula feels out of place, or forced, into the story, rather than naturally occurring.

Joseph Fiennes is the key to the show. His performance is spot on and hopefully the rest of the cast can catch up lest the show be drowned in its own mediocrity. There is potential there, and with the set-up out of the way I'll be keen to see if the show can really grow into its own. The pedigree of the cast and crew gives me some glimmer of optimism that it can. But based on the opening two episodes I can only leave Camelot teetering precariously on the edge of being dropped from my "watch" list.

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