Retro Review – Merlin (1998)

Merlin poster

Overview

Synopsis Follows the life of Merlin as he struggles to find a good king to help ward against an ever-present spiritual threat that seeks to destroy the kingdom. Based on the Arthurian legend.

Length 3 hours, 2 minutes

Release Date 26 April, 1998

 

Rating Not Rated in USA. Rated as PG in the UK and Australia.

Distribution National Broadcasting Company (NBC) (TV), Sonar Entertainment (II) (all media)

Directing Steve Barron

Writing Peter Barnes, David Stevens, Edward Khmara (story)

Composition Trevor Jones

Starring Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Helena Bonham Carter, Martin Short, Rutger Hauer, Lena Headey, Mark Jax, Paul Curran, Isabella Rossellini, James Earl Jones

Sometimes a movie comes along that defies expectation, charms the viewer despite its inherent flaws, and tempts us for a rewatch every couple of years. Back in the 90s there were a few classic tales ripe for adaptation that ultimately fell into the nexus that was the television miniseries format; tales that needed over three hours in runtime to be told adequately and therefore not ideal for cinema, but also required high budgets in order to pull off the narrative’s more fantastical elements which was always television’s caveat during that time. Due to financial restraints, television miniseries tended to be merely average, never achieving the same highs as theatrically released movies despite containing plots that were worthy of the silver screen. Yet in the murk of 90s miniseries mediocrity there were two from Hallmark Entertainment that stood out to me: 1996’s Gulliver’s Travels and 1998’s Merlin. Both have earned a place in my DVD collection as I find myself inexplicably crawling back to them every couple of years, with the latter always managing to capture my imagination.

In preparation for the release of The Green Knight, it seemed like the perfect time to watch this old favourite of mine once again.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The film covers a mostly family-friendly version of the Arthurian legend and is a blend of medieval warfare and fantasy. There are a number of sword-wielding battles where countless soldiers are slashed and stabbed; the impact of the blade is off screen, though it’s clear when characters are delivering a lethal blow. Some freshly killed bodies are seen on the ground impaled by swords. There are no close ups on wounds or gore, but blood is seen seeping into the snow. One character is beheaded and the action is seen through silhouette. A character is threatened with being burnt at the stake, and another’s body is seen scarred with burns.

On the fantasy side of things, time-lapse photography is used to give magical characters an unnatural sense of movement that can be unnerving for young viewers. Queen Mab, the film’s main antagonist, commands wild winds with a scream, can generate fireballs from a wave of her hands, and otherwise sends a character or two to their deaths; there is a close up on their face as they perform their death throes. Characters fight a dragon and a group of griffons.

Language/Crude Humor: Very mild. Limited use of the words h*ll and d*mn, whilst bastard is said but used within its proper context.

Drug/Alcohol References: Occasionally characters drink alcohol in social situations.  

Sexual Content: Two instances of sexual assault, as in, if the true identity of their lovers were known, then the characters would not have consented to intercourse. There are three sex scenes in total – no nudity; only bare shoulders and kissing are seen. However, their acts are revealed to a concerned third party through the use of magic; a character sees two writhing bodies in a reflection, whilst another sees a character’s face moaning lustfully in amongst some melted candle wax. Adultery is frequently committed though the film is keen to point out that this is a sin. Incest occurs. A teenage boy asks for a kiss from a teenage girl as payment in return for a good deed.

Spiritual Content: The entire plot of the film revolves around a powerful witch of the “Old Ways” (alluding to Celtic Paganism) who frets that she’ll be forgotten and lose her power once Christianity takes hold of Britain. The story shows both Pagan and Christian believers, although none are particularly ardent about their beliefs, rather the film focuses more on the folly of man as opposed to delving into a theological discussion. In general though, most characters decide to turn away from the Old Ways whereas God is always shown reverence. One character spends a number of years in a convent.

Other Negative Content: Set during medieval times, there isn’t a great value placed on human life; people go to war and the risk the lives of others over petty issues. One character frequently performs impersonations, and unfortunately at one point in the film they portray a racial stereotype of a Chinese man.

Positive Content: The story upholds the importance of justice, mercy, and honesty, and implores people to be pure of heart, not giving into hatred or temptations such as lust. In doing so, it also acknowledges the human struggle in trying to achieve these practically impossible ideals.

Review

When it comes to the question as to the best movie adaptation of the Arthurian legend, many people would answer that it’s Excalibur. Yet for those that are aware of its existence, many fans would list 1998’s Merlin as a close second. Due to originally being a miniseries, the film doesn’t get as much attention compared to other more notable theatrically released movies, such as Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (which always finds itself in people’s Arthurian top five lists mostly due to nostalgia) or recent productions like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (which isn’t as horrible as critics reported). Granted, some will just say the best is Monty Python and the Holy Grail and anyone who thinks differently has a hamster for a mother and their father smells of elderberries!

But getting on with it…

Aside from its format, what makes Merlin different from the rest is the focus of its narrative. Instead of exclusively narrowing in on the tale of Arthur and pulling the sword from the stone, searching for the Holy Grail, and setting up his knights of the round table, Merlin, as its title suggests, tells the story from the wizard’s point of view. Fleshing out the character’s backstory, it’s a narrative that is wide in scope that covers several generations of British lore. To provide an analogy, the other films are the equivalent of telling the story of Samson—epic that it is, it covers the rise and fall of a single man. Whereas Merlin is the equivalent of a film adapting the events in the book of Judges, detailing the journeys of multiple characters in episodic fashion, all while crafting an overarching thematic narrative to tie it all together.

Given its impressive scope that includes most of the key elements of the legend, from King Vortigern to King Arthur, with even the more obscure characters added such as Elaine of Astolat, it should be no surprise to learn that Merlin was initially released as a three-part series with hour long episodes. When it released on DVD, the menu divided it up into two parts, although it really plays seamlessly like one long movie; there’s no obvious separation between the two halves (or three parts for that matter) like a mid-credits segment. There are no crazy cliffhangers at the hour marks, so Merlin ends up working really nicely as an epic, sprawling medieval fantasy film despite its miniseries roots.

Some might be worried about the change in focus. When it comes to origin stories as of late there hasn’t been a great track record, where franchises have created spin-off movies to answer questions that no one ever asked, such as what happened in Solo and Prometheus. Thankfully productions back in the 90s were a different beast. Merlin’s backstory adds in another whole layer of complexity to the typical Arthurian tale that will no doubt enthral Christian viewers. Naturally some liberties had to be taken, the biggest of which is the introduction of the film’s main antagonist, Queen Mab; a character sourced from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as opposed to medieval lore.

What works well in Merlin is that every character is well-rounded, complete with their own goals, desires, flaws and strengths, as though the film fully understands that everyone views themselves as the main protagonist of their own story. There are a lot of little vignettes, like the relationship between Gawain and his father, or the stresses of being a soothsayer for a murderous king. Merlin casts a wide web of interlocking interpersonal relationships and narratives, and impressively manages to contain them all under the weight of the personal vendetta it establishes between Merlin and Queen Mab.

Fiercely portrayed by Miranda Richardson, Queen Mab is an interesting villain. Representing the head of the power structure behind “the Old Ways”, Queen Mab finds herself in a precarious position when the people of Britain are slowly abandoning their Pagan beliefs in order to follow Christianity. Sensing her own destruction, she scrambles to find allies, doing everything in her power to influence humanity and create new worshippers. As part of her power play, she creates Merlin; a man with no human father (sound familiar?). Yet it’s too simple to label Queen Mab as an allegory for Satan and also to call Merlin a Christ-figure. She may whisper in people’s ears and tempt humans into committing selfish deeds, yet she’s more sympathetic than a being of pure evil. Her goal is understandable; it’s one of self-preservation. Unfortunately for her it’s at the expense of everyone else causing others to perceive her decisions as amoral.

Thanks to being a believer, I cannot help but view Merlin through a Christian lens, which is easy enough to do given the many allusions to classic Old Testament stories, such as the folly of King David, littered throughout the film. With Mab essentially playing the Satanic figure (albeit with some nuanced differences), it’s interesting to note that her journey in some sense replicates that which is found in Scripture. Or maybe not even Satan—I like to equate Merlin to how the book of Judges might unfold if it were told from the perspective of Dagon. When it comes to these demonic entities, they might at first seem alluring with their mysterious presence and mystical powers, where it might seem “cool” for the unwise to follow them. Yet the more time that is spent really getting to understand their nature, that veil of surface level attraction slips and what is left is a pathetic unsatisfying, unfulfilled list of promises that never came close to truly healing the emptiness of the human condition. The audience’s relationship with Mab cleverly follows this same journey, like a statue of Dagon that demands worship only to get utterly decimated by just the slightest breeze of God’s glory. Unlike Mab, God doesn’t need an actor to represent His influence, though His presence is felt throughout the film regardless. Forget the chess and checkers analogy, God is so much bigger than the petty little games Mab plays. His Spirit is felt when King Arthur preaches equality and the sanctity of life. Some characters reverently speak of the peace He brings to their lives. Others understand Him as the true source of power in this universe, where when one particular character says “may God have mercy on your soul” to Mab, it lands hard given the context. Merlin might be filled with sinful people that continually fail to uphold their own beliefs, yet it never speaks badly about God.

Merlin’s adoration and trust of Queen Mab wanes early, with his character arc acting as a counterpoint as he continually tries to take the moral high ground. This version of Merlin is certainly more human than other adaptations, where he’s not this all-powerful wizard, rather he’s restrained with his magic and weary of his own optimism when it comes to trying to find a good man to sit on the throne. Like most characters in the film, his religious allegiance is murky. He supports Christians because they present a way to be anti-Mab, and while he never opposes the teachings of Christ (and in some scenes he even reminds others of the important ethics promoted within the faith) he can’t fully convert either, as that would deny too much of his own existence and his problematic genetic entanglement with the Old Ways.

In many aspects this hesitancy to strongly depict religious faith of any persuasion vastly improves the quality of the story. If Merlin was produced a decade later and penned by a lesser screenwriter, then it would be a film filled with on-the-nose Christian characters eager to show the Pagans the fallacy of their ways through unrealistic propagandizing scenarios. If it were written another decade later, then the audience would have their arms twisted to sympathise with the poor Pagans as the patriarchal Christians invaded their lands and oppressed their culture. This story could have so easily have fallen into Christian propaganda or Woke territory—narratives that we have regrettably seen so many times before—but thankfully Merlin is masterfully helmed and nicely balanced in this regard.

This balance is struck through a number of ways. This theological feud might be the driving force behind the cascade of events in the plot, yet it frequently takes a break and becomes secondary to other motives. Merlin makes it clear that the war between gods is fought through the battles of man. Instead of confronting the audience and challenging them to suspend their disbelief around a far-fetched and somewhat unrelatable narrative concerning the worries of a mythical, immortal being like Queen Mab, Merlin persistently chooses to focus on the all-too-accurate flaws of humanity. This film feels like a long episode of “humans behaving badly”, where characters may express their religious beliefs, but like so many in our fallen world, their spiritual identity appears as a mere casual interest that becomes secondary to other temptations in life. The movie tends to operate as more of a critique on human nature as opposed to attempting to tackle riskier topics such as the dominance of one religion over another even though both themes occur simultaneously.

While Merlin and Queen Mab’s tendency to use humans as chess pieces in their generational-long family feud essentially provides an excuse for the wizard to be present throughout entire narrative, it does lose its way sometimes. It’s to be expected—Queen Mab’s role is unique to Merlin so it’s natural this entire plot line will seem shoehorned in while it tells the more familiar elements of the Arthurian tale. In turn, it’s not always helpful that Merlin’s motives are constantly questioned as well by his long-lost lover, Nimue, played demurely by Isabella Rossellini. While their romance is sweet and yet also epic in nature, Rossellini didn’t have much to work with, as Nimue has scene after scene of her begging Merlin to stay with her as opposed to gallivanting around the country. Her character might be the simplest of the lot, but she has a point: Merlin acts like one of those people who pines for the peace and rest self-isolation brings, and yet he’s also reaching for every excuse to leave the house as soon as he gets a moment to himself. There comes a moment in the three-hour runtime when the audience does question why Merlin seeks to continually stick his nose into everyone else’s business as the quarrel with Queen Mab begins to lose its thematic presence.

Yet if anyone can pull the character off, it’s Sam Neill. Merlin isn’t just the main protagonist, but he also plays the role of the narrator. Similar once again to the book of Judges, Merlin constantly assesses the misgivings of those in front of him with a sense of clear-headedness and moral superiority. With those traits tempered with Sam Neill’s usual enigmatic and reverent screen presence, the character is saved from being pompous and arrogant. Somehow Merlin manages to be simultaneously engaged and yet also at an arm’s length of the saga that unfolds.

Even without Sam Neill it’s an impressive cast, and it feels like all of the actors were given permission to really try something creative with each of their characters. Though it’s not like Martin Short ever needed permission, so in Merlin he’s completely unhinged! Portraying Queen Mab’s henchman, a gnome called Frik, he’s a character that has the tendency to shapeshift and play the comic relief as a tactic to persuade people to his side, though given this is Martin Short we’re talking about here, those impersonations are many and deliriously erratic. Given the serious drudgery of watching Vortigern, Uther and Arthur all rise then fall repeatedly due to their own mistakes, Frik offers a welcome change of tone and pace, and despite one of the impersonations briefly fostering a harmful racial stereotype that certainly hasn’t aged well, Martin Short is always a delight to see on screen. He brings a lot of energy though, practically screaming that he’s there to turn this mature legend into family friendly fare, bringing all the camp and cringe he can muster without losing his charm.

Helena Bonham Carter’s role as Morgan Le Fay isn’t quite as clear cut in terms of tone. The character is introduced as a child and reflects the same sense of innocence and wonder to seeing the magic of the Old Ways as someone of the same age would in the audience. The interactions between Frik and young Morgan feel like they should belong more in a film like Matilda as opposed to the Game of Thrones-esque politics littered throughout the rest of Merlin. So young viewers who may latch onto this character might be in for a shock when she later, as an adult, decides to get further in life through using her womanly wiles. Morgan lives with a facial deformity, which might explain why Helena Bonham Carter decided to play her with a lisp as though the voice also reflects the character’s outward superficial faults, but the acting choice is a little too much. The lisp is heavy-handed and almost infantile in its delivery, making light of the real tragedy of the character.

The boldest acting choice however comes from Miranda Richardson in her role as Queen Mab (she also plays the Lady of the Lake). She voices Mab with a raspy whisper that’s both threatening when she hisses and spits out her venomous thoughts but it’s also rather pathetically weak. It’s an unusual choice, one that I’ve only seen again in Jupiter Ascending though Eddie Redmayne did not pull it off whereas Miranda Richardson makes it iconic. You can forget everything else in Merlin but you will always remember Queen Mab’s voice. The duality of that vocal choice is beautifully fitting for the character; when we’re first introduced to her character, she comes across as otherworldly with an undercurrent of menace, though as events unfold her words begin to sound more like a shrivelling cry.

Of course, some viewers may find the film’s two tones (dark medieval politics and family friendly entertainment) to be too dissonant and raucously silly. I grew up with and therefore am used to the glam of the 90s, but others might see Mab’s costume as nothing but a goth girl’s dream outfit that’s wildly out of place in an otherwise period piece accurate production. In one bizarre scene, Merlin visits the misfit band of villains. In one corner there’s Martin Short doing an impression of a Fabio-lookalike swashbuckler and otherwise being as Martin Short as he can possibly be. Then there’s Helena Bonham Carter enjoying her funky lisp, Miranda Richardson looking like she’s about to belt out Evanescsence’s “Bring Me to Life” at any given moment, while the character of Mordred sits and acts like the most pretentious little psychopathic emo you’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing. The scene doesn’t even serve that much of a purpose. It’s just the epitome of the 90s and early 2000s just sitting in that room, showcasing all the camp and cringe-worthy trends of that time period, which you’ll either embrace wholeheartedly or mock relentlessly.

Lena Headey, Rutger Hauer and James Earl Jones are some of the other famous faces (or voices in the case of Jones) that some might recognise. In terms of the more traditional storylines that stay closer to the original legend, it’s fairly straightforward. With so much ground to cover, it does feel like the film is only providing a light gloss over some otherwise pretty heavy tales, which is only emphasized all the more every time the film unnecessarily feels the need to point out the fact it’s doing a time jump through Merlin’s narration. Aware of the quickening pace, audiences may fear it’s all too fast to really connect with the plight of the characters, but Merlin will suddenly take a turn and solidly hit an emotional beat, flooring viewers with its impact. Frik and Morgan might be the two most light-hearted characters of the bunch, but the movie is so skilled that it manages to make them the center of arguably the story’s most affecting moment. Merlin, it seems, has many tricks up its sleeve.

It’s a miniseries that can be easily underestimated, but once you allow it to hold your attention it turns into a film worthy of respect. We’re so spoiled these days with multimillion-dollar movies filled with world class CGI and impressive battle sequences that it’s easy to sneer at Merlin’s meagre efforts. It’s never going to compare to modern standards in the special effects department, but Merlin is smart with its budget and knows how to make the best use of its finances to elevate the production as a whole. So it doesn’t rely on special effects—it’s quick to edit around the action. The same is true on the battlefield. Instead it focusses on getting its locations right. As a viewer you want a film to whisk you away to places you may have never seen before, and Merlin does this time and time again. It doesn’t waste its budget on costly studio sets and instead it spends most of its runtime outdoors, lavishing every frame with Wales’ gorgeous geography as its backdrop. Merlin proves that you can never have too many shots of a person riding on horseback across picturesque landscapes all set to Trevor Jones’ breathtaking score. Setting, music, and of course, good storytelling are what makes Merlin overcome its financial limitations.

So is this a miniseries for the entire family to enjoy? Yes and no. I know that some GUG readers are concerned whenever magic is present in a story, worried that their children might be led astray. Let’s just be real here—Merlin is the coolest character in the Arthurian legend and kids are going to naturally gravitate towards him in regards to roleplay, in the same way that Elsa is usually the favourite in play time over Anna, and how children will like the superpowered Avengers over Hawkeye (sorry Hawkeye, but it’s true). Will they be diving headfirst into occult worship after watching this film? Probably not. In fact, if they feel this way then they haven’t watched Merlin closely enough because the movie actively discourages following Queen Mab’s ways. It’s a central theme. What parents should be more concerned about is the film’s sexual content. There are a lot of lustful gazes, gasping faces, and illegitimate begotten offspring in Merlin and it’s probably best that viewers at least know their birds and the bees otherwise they might unwittingly cotton on to a thing or two. Yet while Merlin is upfront (but not explicit) with its sexual relationships, it does provide a great learning opportunity to demonstrate how destructive sexual sin can be as the film very much holds onto those Old Testament style lessons. It’s a story that preaches fidelity by portraying the catastrophic repercussions of having sex outside of the context of marriage.

While it’s too mature for the youngest of viewers, if you’re looking for a solid, less brutal but still thematically rich adaptation of the Arthurian legend, then Merlin is worth tracking down. The DVD only has an image gallery and trailers from other miniseries as extras, so it’s not a satisfying buy compared to an online purchase. Yet it’s certainly worth buying nonetheless.

Positives

+ It tells a good story!
+ Positive Christian themes.
+ A well stacked cast.
+ Enormous scope.
+ Gorgeous landscapes.
+ Brilliant soundtrack.

Negatives

- It's very 90s...
- Dated CGI.
- Some story elements feel shoehorned in.
- Too much sexual content for younger viewers.
- Mix of tones.

The Bottom Line

Merlin (1998) might be dated by its tone and special effects, but it surpasses expectations by remembering to achieve the most important aspect of filmmaking—to tell a good story.

 

8.4

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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