Screen view: Camelot


Over the course of the past two nights I watched the ten episodes of Camelot, the Starz Network’s version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I guess I’m like most people, having a fondness for this epic story, which is one of the foundation myths of western civilization. Nevertheless I’m open to different interpretations, such as the terrific books by Mary Stewart, which start with The Crystal Cave. But this version… hum…

Camelot stars Joseph Fiennes as Merlin and the sultry Eva Green as Morgan. That’s a pretty good start. But then the casting falls apart, mostly because of the young actor who plays Arthur, Jamie Campbell Bower. Seriously. Imagine a young Ethan Hawk, but even more weaselly looking. And don’t be fooled by the promotional image above. That’s a highly stylized image of the young Mr. Bower. Here’s a still from the actual show:

Arthur & Guenivere

And even that photo is flattering. The kid looks like a wimpy version of Milla Jovovich. Come to think of it, Jovovich would have made a more credible king.

Bower was in a recent Harry Potter movie, and he has a recurring part in the latest Twilight films. Perhaps the producers think he is an up-and-comer, but I can’t see it. Then again, I’m old and crotchety.

Arthur is a man who is supposed to be able to inspire his country’s best, but in this telling and with this actor, it is difficult to imagine anyone following this king into battle. Then again, the United States did elect George W. Bush twice, so who knows?

This series looks great, with a lot of attention (and CGI wizardry) given to creating Camelot, a decaying Roman fortress atop a cliff overlooking the sea. But the writers have leeched away the magic from most of the seminal Arthurian moments. The delivery of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake is laughable, while drawing the sword from the stone is presented as a gimmick created by Merlin. The storytellers here do not know if they want this version to be magical or not. They want to explain some of these events in realistic (i.e. non-paranormal) terms, but do not make them plausible. Merlin has eschewed his magical powers, except for sometimes. So magic exists in the Arthurian world, the filmmakers just don’t want to show it to us.

Other aspects of the traditional story are over-turned. Most glaring is the love triangle among Arthur, Guenivere and Lancelot (here called Leontes). The traditional story has Guenivere, Arthur’s queen, falling in love with Lancelot. In this version, Guenivere is betrothed to Leontes, but Arthur nevertheless seduces her on the morning of her wedding day. You see, this Arthur not only looks like a weasel, he acts like one. What in the original tale is presented as noble restraint by two lovers, is here just a sordid affair.

Despite these problems, Camelot can be viewed as a soap opera with swords. There really isn’t much swashbuckling on screen, however. More often the action is confined to daggers at throats and thrust into bellies. The real action in Camelot is the political manipulation of the citizenry by Morgan and her evil nun advisor. While Arthur is engaged in his sexual exploits (and the sulking when he doesn’t get his way), Morgan builds her political capital by preying on the fear of the citizens. In fact, the whole thing seems to be an allegory of our current politics — sex scandals and Republican fear-mongering.

But I wonder what demographic this series is supposed to appeal to. The casting of Arthur would make me believe they are going for teenage girls, but there is a lot of sex and nudity (Eva Green, thankfully, providing much of the latter). If this was a film in the theater, it would surely have garnered an R rating.

Given the effort and the amount of airtime devoted to it, Camelot is a big disappointment, even though it could provide a few hours of mild, guilty-pleasure entertainment. The ending sets the stage for a continuation of the story, but I understand that Starz has decided not to produce more installments. Praise be to Merlin.

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