Camelot, the latest version of the King Arthur legend, reviewed by John Newman
There are so many versions of the King Arthur legend that it runs the risk of being a story so familiar we can gain nothing more from it. This latest attempt to re-tell the story, titled Camelot, may have been made by an American company but it was filmed in Ireland and helmed by an English writer. Chris Chibnall, best known for his involvement with Law and Order: UK, the football drama United as well as both Doctor Who and its Torchwood spin off has fashioned a version of the venerable tale that approaches matters from an earthier angle in every respect.
So, rather than being the gleaming castle presented in the BBC’s hit Merlin, the stronghold here is a castle falling into ruins without even a roof for it’s central area and weeds sprouting from its walls. This Arthur is living with foster parents in a small village unaware of his heritage until one day Merlin turns up and proclaims him king. The sage himself is seemingly ageless, a distant figure who seems to possess some kind of elemental power. However there is no zapping or moving of objects, this is a power that takes as much from the person as it gives and one which Arthur’s spurned sister Morgan is also dabbling with.
Despite being a US production Camelot at times looks like it has less money to spend than Merlin does. Early scenes involving large crowds soon give way to episodes focussing on individuals away from the castle or lurking in the under populated environs of Morgan’s Pendragon Castle hideout. The climactic battle at the end involves no more than a thirty people and clever camera angles though this is not necessarily a totally bad thing. By shrinking the action down to key characters with which we become familiar the series can draw us closer in to the action than something more epic might.
The expected themes of fairness, bravery and of course love are present and when treated maturely offer more than you might expect. Tried and trusted parts of the legend are given a new twist, most spectacularly in a sequence where the sword in the stone is also in the middle of a seemingly unreachable waterfall. As you might expect it is violent with sword wounds yielding blood aplenty, there is sex in which both parties do not keep their clothes on in that usual quaint TV style and there is even some swearing. You could argue the show might benefit from a little more levity though perhaps the creators have noticed how poor `lighter` episodes of similar series have been.
A strong cast holds the show together in moments when it can seem hokey. This is the natural environment for every line of dialogue to be a proclamation or declaration of some sort- whether of love, friendship, evil intent and so on. Joseph Fiennes delivers the finest adult Merlin since Nicol Williamson’s deliciously unhinged performance in the film Excalibur. Fiennes’ Merlin is a visceral earth creature who keeps a tight lid on his emotions, as if scared to use his powers. His advice to Arthur is in terms the wet behind the ears king can understand. He has a curious relationship with Morgan too, as if they admire each other yet each is also seeking to trick the other.
Jamie Campbell Bower is a good match as Arthur in that he seems just too weak at first but grows into the role which suits the direction of scripts that paint him as incredibly idealistic but emotionally flawed. By the time he’s single handedly taking on a battalion of enemies in the last episode he’s earned your support. Tamsin Egerton does her best as Guinevere though she is hamstrung by a character arc that turns her from feisty and intriguing to soppy and dull after two or three episodes.
Eva Green gets the key role of Morgan, always fun for an actor and she gives an excellent version of the traditional villainess. There are moments in almost every episode where she surprises and even when she appears to be losing her voice near the end, she makes Morgan’s evil deeds shock. A character I’d not seen in any previous version is the scheming Nun Sybil played by Sinead Cusack. A character who acts as a maternal figure to Morgan and manipulates situations even at her own expense to help her get the crown, she is the surprise package of the show. While Morgan is to some extent the antagonist we might expect, Sybil’s plot lines are full of shocks and unexpected acts.
There is much to recommend the series. Visually it looks fabulous, tapping into the earthly and mysterious sides of the story and always delivering when it comes to action sequences. It’s take on Arthur’s moral and political beliefs is well rendered and there is a lot to enjoy in seeing how brother and sister try to outsmart each other. Gambles you imagine won’t pay off- in particular Morgan impersonating Igraine - work extremely well. Perhaps it was timing or promotion that meant there will not be a second season because it deserves to continue and in many ways is only just getting started by the last episode.