Science fiction and fantasy                                            


directed by Steve Barron

This version of Merlin is a two-part made-for-TV movie starring Sam Neill as Merlin and Miranda Richardson as Mab, Queen of the Old Ways. In this account of the Arthurian legend Mab creates Merlin, and his power derives from an ancestry that's half-fairy.

The story is narrated by an aged Merlin, looking back on his life. It's a very fanciful, fairytale take on the legend, with Tinkerbell-style fairies flitting around and an excess of glamour. Queen Mab, who always talks in a whisper, is threatened by the progress of Christianity because it means people are turning away from the old ways and forgetting them, and as they do that the magic is fading from the land. Mab and her domain are in danger of disappearing entirely. She aims to use Merlin to restore her to her position of power.

But the young Merlin (Daniel Brocklebank) soon realises that Mab has a cruel nature. She has her assistant, Frik (Martin Short), instruct him in magic, but Merlin vows not to use his powers unless it's to defeat Mab.

However Merlin has the misfortune to fall in love, which is bad news for his beloved Nimue (Isabella Rossellini). Mab is in the habit of using other people in an attempt to blackmail Merlin into doing as she tells him to. Meanwhile Vortigern (Rutger Hauer) is at war with Uther Pendragon (Mark Jax). Merlin sees Vortigern as a tyrant and decides to offer Uther his help. One of the strengths of this movie is the way it includes so many aspects of the traditional Arthurian legend, from the Lady in the Lake (also played by Miranda Richardson) to the story about the castle that won't stay up.

This film emphasises the weakness of the human heart, and there's always some corruption or some betrayal in the making. Merlin is on a quest to find the perfect king, and it's almost as though he's doomed to fail because in every champion there's some kind of fatal flaw. He's surrounded by vain and imperfect characters, and some of them seem to be consumed by the desire for beauty and power, not least of all Morgan Le Fay (Helena Bonham Carter).

In spite of some dated effects, Merlin has a lot of visual appeal. This is partly because the characters, particularly the bad guys, tend to go all out for showy and elaborate costumes. Mordred (Jason Done) goes to battle in a helm that would be extremely impractical to fight in, but it makes him look fierce, and that's what matters in this movie.

Merlin has a misty-eyed, melodramatic tone that's lightened by the frivolity of all the fantasy elements. Frik and Morgan Le Fay are particularly silly, and they prevent this movie from getting bogged down in misery. So this film falls part-way between comedy and tragedy, not quite attaining the best of either genre, but it's an enjoyable take of the story of Arthur and Merlin nonetheless.

Film Details

Decade: 1990s

Categories: Films

  Kids     Fantasy

Classification: PG

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson