Continuing a theme of epic television fantasy miniseries, this week Video Vault celebrates Hallmark Entertainment/NBC Studio’s Merlin. Originally aired as three 60-minute episodes over consecutive nights in April of 1998, Merlin is the award-winning chronicling of the life and times of literature’s (second?) most famous wizard. Directed by Steve Barron (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Coneheads), the film stars Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Helena Bonham Carter, Isabella Rossellini, John Gielgud, Rutger Hauer, Lena Headey, James Earl Jones, and the divine Martin Short. I recorded the original broadcast on VHS and it became a staple of my school sick days due to its lengthy running time up until I was able to buy the DVD (and no longer had to fast forward through the commercials!). I will tell you right up front, I absolutely LOVE all 182 minutes of this movie! It has maintained a place in my top 10 list of favorite films of all time since watching it live on NBC.
Merlin follows the ubiquitous wizard (Sam Neill) from the dubious circumstances resulting in his birth up to “the end of magic”. A mostly original story of Merlin’s history and lifelong struggle against a fey goddess named Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) and her efforts to restore the old pagan ways serves as a backbone for the classic tales from Britain’s legendary history, which includes the reigns of the tyrant King Vortigern and lustful Uther Pendragon, the lives of King Arthur, Morgan le Faye and their bastard son Mordred, the matter of Excalibur, the quests of the Knights of the Round Table, the love affair of Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere, and the rise and fall of Camelot. Isabella Rossellini portrays, Nimue, Merlin’s perennial love interest. Light moments are provided by Martin Short as the multi-faceted cursed magician, Frik, in this predominantly serious adaptation of Arthurian legend. Everything satisfying about scripted entertainment can be found in this TV movie: complex characters with compelling arcs, plants and pay-offs, twists, family drama, both new and familiar characters, light-handed social commentary, suspenseful action sequences, grand romance, dragons, and an affecting conclusion.
In case I have not yet made it clear, the script is phenomenal and expertly weaves the well-known stories of medieval literature in and out of an engrossing profile of the fascinating wizard. Acting is also exceptional from the entire cast, but especially Sam Neill who convincingly portrays multiple eras of Merlin’s life, gracefully creating a portrait of an exhausted peace-seeker stuck in a world of constant turmoil. Miranda Richardson fully commits in a doubly creepy dual role as the sinisterly scheming Queen Mab and her ephemeral sister, The Lady of the Lake. The special effects are above par for a TV movie, even today. Actually, pretty much everything is outstanding for a TV movie. Interestingly, effort was taken to adhere to sets, props, and costumes that were historically accurate to the time period. The film won 4 out of 15 Emmy nominations and garnered a slew of other accolades. I do not claim to be an Anglophile or a scholar of Arthurian legend, but to me, Merlin is a fantastic and unparalleled adaptation of the classic British tales and hits an entertainment sweet spot that makes it endlessly re-watchable and gloriously satisfying. It truly is magical.