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The Mists of Avalon

TNT/Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 176 mins . M15+ . PAL


The story of King Arthur, Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table (and of course that ubiquitous champion of the silly beard, Merlin) has been told and retold for a great many years, and both cinema and television have never been hesitant about adapting the story to their own ends. The story’s been retold as hysterical drama (John Boorman’s Excalibur), goofy romance (First Knight), a misfired musical (Camelot), modern-day adaptation (The Fisher King) and deliciously silly comedy (Monty Python and the Holy Grail). King Arthur has popped up in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Merlin’s side of the tale scored its very own TV mini-series (starring Sam Neill) in 1998.

However, one side of the familiar legend has gotten relatively little attention from retellers - the points of view of the various women who are essential parts of the story. Novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley certainly noticed the opportunity to revisit Arthurian legend from a fresh angle, and the resulting 900-page novel she published in 1983, The Mists Of Avalon, quickly became a best-seller; it’s still widely read nearly two decades later. Bradley’s take on the story made central characters of the women in the legend - Viviane (the Lady of the Lake), her sisters Igraine and Morgause and niece Morgaine, as well as Arthur’s hapless wife Gwenhwyfar (who’s often phonetically renamed “Guinevere” in other Arthurian retellings). The fundamental story remained the same, but Bradley left the familiar largely in the background and instead fleshed out the lives of the women in the story. Firmly rooted in the ideology of pagan belief and goddess worship, the book found a large and loyal readership - and it’s they that will be the least pleased with this filming of it. A novel that large can’t be squeezed into a three-hour run time, sure, but beyond that screenwriter Gavin Scott has apparently taken some serious liberties with the characters and the story itself. It won’t bother newcomers, but if you’ve read the book (and this reviewer hasn’t), be forewarned that this probably won’t match your vision.

Viviane (Angelica Huston) has for some time been the high priestess of the island of Avalon, a place shrouded in both mystery and mist, and located in a parallel existence somewhere in the vicinity of Glastonbury. Avalon is a place only visible to those with the power to lift the “veil between worlds” and enter it, and their numbers have dwindled. Viviane needs a successor, and chooses Morgaine (played in adulthood by Julianna Margulies) for the job. Morgaine is removed from her family - along with her brother Alfred, who is sent off with Merlin - and spends the rest of her childhood and adolescence learning the ways of magic and gaining power and spiritual focus. But Viviane’s plans aren’t as simple as that; she needs Arthur to become a pagan-friendly king and engineers that reasonably well, but hasn’t counted on the evil powers of her sister Morgause (Joan Allen, obviously relishing the chance to be seriously evil) who throws a rather big proverbial spanner in the works. Suddenly, the future existence of Avalon depends on darker things…

The intentions of all involved here were probably to be as true to the story as possible and take the whole thing very seriously indeed, but there’s no escaping the fact that, boiled down to a three-hour drama, this story plays like pure soap opera of the highest order. Which is perfectly fine, as long as you accept it for what it is. While the book had the space and time to explore characters and their motivations, the idea here seems to be “keep it moving at all times”. And director Uli Edel (best known for hard-edged films like Christiane F and Last Exit To Brooklyn) is perfectly happy to keep things going at pace, utilising a constantly-moving camera and tight editing to make sure that proceedings never get too wordy. After all, this was aimed at US prime-time television audiences.

There are some very good performances here - Angelica Huston does what she does best as Viviane, Caroline Goodall is suitably frail as Igraine, and Samantha Mathis manages to be almost unrecognisable as the hapless Gwenhwyfar; the supporting cast is also solid. But it’s Julianna Margulies as Morgaine who is the big surprise; she’s always been a strong actor (something regular viewers of E.R. will be well aware of), but here she’s remarkable, finding exactly the right balance between naivety and wisdom. She also manages a fairly decent British accent (thankfully, this is not one of those American-accents-in-olde-England efforts), wisely not overdoing it to the point of pantomime.

Technically this “movie” (it was shown on US TV in two parts, though it appears to have been made so it can be divided into four if needed) is superb given the budgetary constraints of the format it was made for. Gorgeous digital matte paintings abound, the effects work is of a high standard and best of all, the cinematography is stunning - not surprising, considering the director of photography is none other than Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot Close Encounters Of the Third Kind back in 1977. The music score (by Lee Holdridge, who did nice work for Warner's Into The Arms Of Strangers recently) is suitably epic and stirring, though the music many viewers will remember best from this production is actually by Canadian artist Loreena McKennitt - the producers have co-opted one of her finest moments, The Mystic’s Dream, and used it liberally at key moments in their story.

Ultimately, it’s all good fun - after all, it’s a story that encompasses magic, lust, war, death, sex, betrayal, incest, deceit, a threesome (!), romance and mystery. The dialogue occasionally - but perhaps not surprisingly - veers towards over-the-top territory, though fortunately not too often. The final half hour seems to drag a bit, though, as the focus shifts from Morgaine to Arthur - to the detriment of the story, as we never really get to know Arthur. And the whole thing’s very nearly brought undone by the closing scene, which is the most ludicrous piece of grovelling religious backpedalling you’ll ever see. It survives that, though, and while it’s no classic, The Mists of Avalon is well-crafted entertainment that manages to effortlessly hold the viewer’s interest for the entire three hour running time.

Incidentally, the Australian censorship rating for The Mists of Avalon is incorrectly stated on the front cover as MA. In fact, it was given a somewhat less severe M rating by the OFLC. This is not the first time Warner’s front-cover rating symbols have been wrong; perhaps someone needs to forward their graphic designer the address of the OFLC web site.


Presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (and anamorphically enhanced), The Mists of Avalon looks terrific on DVD - and outdoes even the version originally broadcast on cable in the US, which was in full-frame format. Shot on 35mm film by a cinematographer who knows his stuff, Mists might not look like a feature film at times - the necessities of quick camera set-ups and closer framing preclude that - but it comes damn close. Zsigmond makes extensive use of unusual lighting (at times he seems almost inspired by John Alcott’s work on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) and as a result of that (as well as the many matte paintings) there’s some scenes here that look like they’ve been pulled off the wall of an art gallery, complete with blurred detail and unconventional light. It’s all represented well on the DVD, with a telecine transfer that’s very good but not state-of-the-art (hey, it’s television!) It’s transferred to DVD with no problems at all from any compression artefacts or other visual problems. Colour resolution is superb, too, in scenes where a good deal of strong colour is used. There’s some grain on occasion, but ironically it just seems to add to the cinematic feel of it all.

This is a dual-layered disc that presents the entire 176-minute production as one continuous feature; the layer change near the 80-minute mark is a bit harsh it its placement but negotiated fairly quickly.


You could wait until The Mists of Avalon arrives on TV in Australia and see it complete with commercial interruptions and bog-standard two-channel sound. Or you could rent or buy this DVD and enjoy this superb Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, which offers an extremely lively soundstage with constantly active surrounds and some impressive (but not showy) use of the subwoofer; particularly noteworthy is the sheer frequency response of this audio track, which (thanks in no small part to dynamic range compression as well as good engineering) sounds strikingly present, crisp and exciting, even in two-channel downmix mode. The music score and Loreena McKennitt’s epic song sound rich and full-bodied, as well. An excellent soundtrack that actually makes the whole thing seem even more cinematic.


There’s not a great deal here in the way of extras (the region 4 disc is identical to the R1, except that ours is in PAL format). While the “Cast And Crew” feature leads only to a pair of non-interactive screens, the “Gallery” option takes us to a kind of “family tree” of the main players in the story, each icon leading to a screen with a picture of the character and their name, the name of the actor that plays them, and what their “thing” is (for example: “Morgaine - Viviane’s successor as High Priestess Of Avalon; In love with Lancelot”!). Considering that the production itself does not offer a full list of credits, this is actually very handy.

On this same screen are a couple of other items - “Costumes” leads to four screen showing conceptual drawings for some of the (often superb) costumes. “Storyboards”, meanwhile, leads to a series of screens displaying the storyboards for one solitary action sequence.

Finally, and best of all, “Additional Scenes” is a collection of nearly eight minutes of deleted scenes from the production, with some shots seeming to have been taken off videotaped rehearsal sequences. All but one are prefaced by an explanation as to why they were cut; mostly this involves “moving the story along” or good old “length reasons”, but our personal favourite is the scene entitled “Raven’s Mystical Prayer”. Raven, a big-eyed bald acolyte from Avalon who doesn’t get a word to say in the main feature, has a scene to herself here. “The scene as filmed was deemed to unnecessarily complex,” states the title card. They ain’t kidding. The girl who plays Raven speaks in a completely incomprehensible eastern European accent without pausing for breath, while the camera whirls around her - and around, and around, and around… We suspect the complex bit would have been when the filmmakers had to repeatedly answer the question “what’s all THAT about?” during interviews.

The deleted scenes are, not surprisingly, in full frame 4:3 format; the first deleted scene is of notably inferior quality compared to the others.


What, you expected high art? The Mists Of Avalon may not satisfy purists and Bradley fans, but as a high-quality piece of solidly fun TV drama it’s extremely entertaining - as long as you can overlook its obvious weak spots and just go along for the ride. That task is aided immeasurably by a terrific lead performance from Julianna Margulies, a cast refreshingly free of bad actors, and some gorgeous photography and production design.

Warner’s DVD is a high-quality rendering of this production in its ideal format - the full 16:9 image (and it was obviously composed specifically for 16:9) and a terrific 5.1 soundtrack, as well as a small but mostly useful collection of extras.

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      And I quote...
    "What, you expected high art?"
    - Anthony Horan
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