The United States of America may rule the world in many things — international basketball, childhood obesity, Kate Hudson movies — but as a relatively youthful nation, we lack in one key resource that more venerable countries take for granted: A rich tradition of folklore and legend.
Yes, we have our John Henrys and Paul Bunyans, but if you’re a writer, try walking into a pitch meeting and leading with, “Pitch this: Chad Michael Murray *is* Johnny Appleseed.”
That’s why it seems like scarcely a year passes without a big or small screen interpretation or reinterpretation of the same British semi-historical tall tales. It’s not that I don’t have an appetite for the adventures of Robin Hood or King Arthur, but I’ve discovered all too quickly that said appetite is not insatiable.
For me, but perhaps not for you, I’ve long since past the point at which merely being introduced to the Knights of the Round Table or Robin’s variably Merry Men is no longer enough. You can’t just say, “This is a great story and I want to tell it. Again.” You have to be able to say, “This is a great story, but my previously unimagined angle-of-approach is…”
Even if Starz’ new series version of “Camelot” were nicely produced, brilliantly acted and energetically rendered, it would still lack that previously unimagined (or previously under-imagined, at least) angle of approach. It’s slightly different from previous Arthurian tales, but it’s no more illuminating, which far supersedes the sins of looking cheap, crawling at a snail’s pace and featuring performances which never rise above lackluster.
As Starz sent out three episodes of “Camelot,” that’s the number I watched, but even the alluring possibility of admirable nudity isn’t likely to bring me back again.
Full review of Starz’ “Camelot” after the break…
“Camelot” was developed by Chris Chibnall and Michael Hirst, but it’s the fingerprints of the latter scribe that are most evident. From his two “Elizabeth” biopics to his long run as sole scribe on “The Tudors,” Hirst has proven repeatedly that his approach to historical intrigue is almost invariably through the prism of “The Godfather.” His commitment to courtly whackings remains unblemished and if you’ve seen previous Hirst production, you can chart the plotting of “Camelot” almost point-for-point.
As our story opens, Morgan (Eva Green) has orchestrated the murder of her father Uther and the exile of mother Igraine (Claire Forlani) in order to take her father’s crown, which is less impressive than it sounds, since Uther’s just one of many warlords battling over chunks of land. Morgan’s certain that her ascension is at hand, until she learns that Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) has been keeping a secret: He packed up Uther’s bastard son Arthur as an infant and deposited him with a family of loving commoners. Years later, Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) is a head-strong pretty-boy teen, more accustomed to stealing voluptuous girlfriends from brother Kay (Peter Mooney) than leading. But when Merlin comes calling, Arthur only whines for a few minutes before embracing his royal destiny and trotting off with his new warlock buddy to Camelot, a rundown castle by the sea. There, he meets blonde hottie Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) and a familiar assortment of political clashes and love triangles ensue.
It’s not that the Arthurian legend has been told and retold to death, but the number of available fresh permutations is definitely limited. The BBC and Syfy are currently airing “Merlin,” a very straight-forward, cheesy-effects-heavy version of the story that I quit on after six episodes due to its lack of interesting motivation. I vaguely remember its Guinevere was slightly spunkier than some who came before, but I wouldn’t want to guarantee that that remained true. The last big screen incarnation was Antoine Fuqua’s 2007 feature, which drained all magic from the story and aspired only to specious historical accuracy, which was to say that all of the knights and rulers were identically grimy and the only magic was the cinematic magic Fuqua filched, with lesser execution, from various Ridley Scott films. If you go back over your favorite King Arthur tales, you might have enjoyed seeing him animated, parodied and singing.
Hirst and Chibnall have taken the much less razor-focused “Throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what thematically sticks” approach.
Arthur, the man himself, is a fairly callow, Tiger Beat-ready youth. Bower, so tremendous in AMC’s “The Prisoner,” has little to clearly play here, so he goes with “petulant,” “bratty” and “unconvincingly regal.” This Arthur, you see, hasn’t been raised to be a king, so he’s quick to protest when Merlin confers the mantle, but when required, he proves every inch a king, complete with an instant sense of entitlement. I mockingly reference Chad Michael Murray as Johnny Appleseed earlier, but if “Camelot” has been done for The CW, this is the way CM-squared would have played Arthur. Take that as you will, I suppose.
Merlin is the pivotal supporting character and Joseph Fiennes has transferred his “FlashForward” growl and clenched brow. I believe we ought to have learned by now that whatever gifts Joseph may possess at earnest yearning or even at lightly comic romanticism, he’s useless when it comes to dark or tortured or mysterious. Although he has some abilities and he’s potentially ageless, Fiennes may be playing the least magical Merlin ever committed to screen. As I observed in this week’s podcast, he’s there to try to state whatever message Hirst and Chibnall are floundering to convey. As such, he’s less a sorcerer and more a political science professor schooled in the manufacturing of power. I take back what I said about the writers not having an angle, since I guess their angle focuses on legend-building, with Merlin delivering a few lines so post-modern he might as well quote Joseph Campbell or maybe “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” Nobody on screen listens to Merlin or understands him, so viewers can be forgiven if they get distracted by Eva Green’s breasts.
The “Casino Royale” and “The Dreamers” star is easily the most captivating part of this series, playing Morgan as vicious, venial and sexual. It’s a truth that Arthur is frequently the least interesting part of Arthurian legends and in this case, more than a few viewers will find themselves sympathizing with Morgan’s cause and wishing this were a revisionist “Arthur” story that focuses on Morgan as The First Modern Woman, the clear and deserving ruler of Camelot brushed off for a flaxen-haired dilettante who just happens to have man-parts. Green is the reason to watch “Camelot,” for many different reasons. But she’s not enough, even when she has a worthy scene partner in somebody like James Purefoy. When she’s paired with Bower or Fiennes, the result is an unintentional mismatch.
The rest of the cast is pretty, but I didn’t care who any of them were or if any of them were supposed to have characters to play. Egerton? Pretty. Mooney? Handsome, for viewers who find Bower too pretty. Philip Winchester? The “Crusoe” star keeps getting cast in stories of this type because he looks like he belongs and not because he has any real charisma. Claire Forlani? Well, it’s nice to have Claire Forlani back, but if this is “One Camelot Hill,” she’s playing the Moira Kelly role where you keep wanting people to come up to her and comment on how she looks much to young to have such a kingly son.
There are lots of stories to tell within the Arthurian legend, but already by the third episode, you can sense wheel spinning. Arthur’s just pining away for Guinevere in the least interesting way possible, while two of his followers wander off on their own to recruit The Future Sir Gawain. It’s an amazingly dull episode, but it suggests the sort of stagnant storytelling that may be required to make a long series run. Certainly the action scenes, cinematography — Yes, Ireland is pretty, what else? — and special effects won’t prove to be much of a lure.
Really, anything that “Camelot” does, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” does many times better. Just hold off for two weeks and watch that instead.
I could ramble on about “Camelot” for a bit, but I’m writing this review from San Francisco, where much of Team HitFix will be covering WonderCon over the next few days. I’ve gotta go register and catch a panel for “Falling Skies” and a screening of next week’s “Nikita.”
Short version: You’ve seen this story before and you’ve seen it told better. The end.
“Camelot” premieres on Friday (April 1) night on Starz.