Miniseries Review: “The Mists of Avalon”

Sure, much will be written about Lady Gwenhwyfar’s (Samantha Mathis) torrid threesome with King Arthur (Edward Atterton) and Lancelot (Michael Vartan)–in which Mathis does a rare nude scene. But the focus of TNT’s miniseries The Mists of Avalon (premiering Sunday, July 15 and Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. EST), should be fixed upon the film’s unflinching look at sheer heartbreak and despair. The film–a female perspective on the Arthurian legend–deals far less with the fantastical elements of the tale, centering instead on the edgy emotions of the women (and occasionally men) who populate the myth, regardless of their rank in life.

Avalon begins literally in the mists, as an older Morgaine (Julianna Margulies) floats ethereally through the fog of a lake, narrating the epic tale (with a decent British accent). In a quick flashback to her younger days, it is revealed that Morgaine possesses a psychic ability to see–and foresee–events taking place that will forever alter the majestic land of Camelot. Clearly, she’s blessed, or cursed, with a gift.

From here, the film’s fixation on the pain of the higher-crust inhabitants of Camelot begins. Quickly, Morgaine (older, in Margulies form) becomes a priestess, but affairs of the heart rapidly become more powerful than frequent episodes of ESP. In love with the chivalrous Lancelot, she tends to dismiss her powers as her more human side emerges. It’s one of the characteristics about the film that makes it different than previous Arthurian installments: the use of special effects and wizardry gives way to the innate desires of the characters.

Unfortunately for Morgaine, however, Lancelot begrudgingly accepts a wife he scarcely loves, leaving the normally sanctified high priestess of Avalon destitute, confused, human.

Of course, the film is not Morgaine’s alone. Oscar nominee Joan Allen turns up as Morgause, a dark, sinister queen who plots against Morgaine’s rise to power (though Allen doesn’t occupy a great deal of screen time). Oscar winner Anjelica Huston portrays Viviane–the Lady of the Lake–mentor to Morgaine. Compared to Margulies, Huston too garners little screen time.

What does occupy the screen time? A handful of impressive battles for one–including a climactic finale between the British and some pesky barbarians–featuring state-of-the-art visual effects. But mostly, the story centers on the torment of the main characters, most notably King Arthur’s desire to sire a child (quite unsuccessfully), Gwenhwyfar’s painful decision to choose Lancelot over Arthur, and, of course, Arthur’s heartfelt reactions to these events.

But it works.

Instead of glorifying these legendary characters, Avalon fleshes out their weaknesses, desires and ultimate failures. It renders whining into decent dialogue.

For you fantasy-film purists, however, the film does have its share of magical elements. Aside from Morgaine’s powers as high priestess of Avalon, good ol’ Merlin (Michael Byrne) churns out the kind of wizardry you’d expect, complete with mist-filled sets that would make Yoda squint. Merlin’s death alone fills the entire land with a thick, pervasive mist, suggesting the film’s dry-ice budget approached six figures.

The movie’s title itself refers to a mythical isle featuring Stonehenge-like megaliths and, well, mist. But the miniseries itself may leave some viewers misty eyed with a touch of boredom. At four hours, Avalon simply feels too long-much like TNT’s holiday miniseries David Copperfield several months ago.

However, if you’re interested in seeing a promising rising star, check out Vartan as Lancelot. Big-screen material.