King Arthur, older and conflicted about kingship, has been away for five years fighting the Romans – leaving his queen and his country vulnerable to his illegitimate son Modred. Arthur must return to Camelot and face down both Modred and the Saxons, who are threatening to invade.
With 2020 going to hell in a handcart, perhaps it is indeed the time to revisit King Arthur, his egalitarian method of ruling and his emotional support wizard, Merlin.
Maybe now is the time to channel an era of bravery, magic, and a system of government memorably summed up by Monty Python as ladies in ponds wielding swords, which probably wouldn’t be any worse than Boris.
This must be the 856th version of the Arthurian legend and with it an Arthur who actually sounds Welsh. His knights, though, sound like they’re from all over – I detected Geordie and Yorkshire twangs among them – and geographically Arthur & Merlin had me confused. I think our location is Camelot, somewhere in England, somewhere in Britain.
It’s 463AD and Arthur (Richard Short) is in France with only a handful of loyal men around him, after thousands have died fighting the Romans. He spends his time canoodling and carousing, having lost his way and his sword Excalibur. And for Arthur he can be no king without Excalibur. His shadowy return to England shows how weakened he has become, in terms of support as much as from the battle in his own head.
In Camelot, Arthur’s illegitimate son Modred (Joel Phillimore) has taken over. Thrones are back in fashion, and the famous round table is now firewood.
Scheming to get his hands on Arthur’s wife Guinevere (Stella Stocker), who he keeps under house arrest with him, he’s also preparing to welcome the Saxons, who are on their way expecting a fight. “We must let Camelot die so that we might live” he tells those few noblemen who haven’t gone to Rome.
When you strip a legend down there is often little there, and Arthur and Merlin: Knights of Camelot does feel like the bare bones. This is probably mostly budget-related – the cast is small and we never see local villages or subjects. Modred, his few nobles and guards rattle around the frankly enormous castle of Camelot. Unfortunately it makes it nearly impossible to get any sense of the importance of what is happening in the kingdom. This is a fight between a king and his son, with an unfaithful wife and magicians thrown into the mix, but it’s more chippy brooding over a mid-life crisis than right royal bust up.
Luckily director Giles Alderson and cinematographer Andrew Rodger make great use of the landscape: cliffs and marshes give a sense of the kind of man who could rule over such rugged, empty country 1500 years ago. Some of the locations are stunning, with empty beaches and wintry skies of muted blues and greys. Camelot, the seat of power, looms over what must be a small kingdom (that castle doesn’t look like a 5th century fort, but I’ll allow the artistic licence as 5th century forts probably aren’t very movie-friendly). The hand-to-hand fighting is fast and furious, and well-shot (it’s actually only when fighting that we get any real idea of Arthur’s passion).
The oddly-fringed Modred looks like a 17 year old X Factor contestant and probably has the weepy backstory to match (incestuous dead mother, daddy issues, hot faithless stepmum). He’s greedy, sleazy, insecure and threatening, with no interest in the learning and guidance that kingship requires. Despite occasional lapses into scenery-chewing, Phillimore mostly does a good job of bringing out the young pretender’s wilfulness and tinpot rage. Modred is both out of his depth and screaming for attention from his father. The scene with the kingdom’s remaining knights – who are torn between public loyalty to Arthur and literal survival – is impressive.
Merlin (Richard Brake) is only an occasional presence, popping up like a workplace mentor after a terrible appraisal to proffer useful advice (that kingship is about endurance, not glory) before vanishing again. That’s fine – witches, fairy godmothers and warlocks are like salt, waking up the movie tastebuds, as long as we remember that a little can go a long way – but the title implies this is an Arthur-Merlin two-hander and it isn’t. In fact Knights Of Camelot on its own makes more sense.
For a stripped-back Arthur, a character study of a king who has lost faith in himself and his role, there’s an awful lot thrown in here, without the time, budget or real insight to do it all justice: bits of magic, some smoke, some prophecy, a betrayal.
Short is at his best near the end, when playing the Arthur we know, back in Camelot and forced to face up to another betrayal: heroic and righteously angry, trying not to let his rage push him into retaliation that would put him at odds with his view of what a king is. Up until then his brokenness and lost faith in kingship doesn’t ring true, partly because of what is missed out. The shock of betrayal of a father by a son are mostly ignored so we never find out what makes these two key characters tick.
Guinevere, a complex woman at the heart of a 1500 year old love triangle, has little to do beyond look haughty, snap at Modred and think wistfully of Lancelot. Stella Stocker’s queen exhibits a self-contained pride that works well, though – Guinevere knows her worth, however bad her circumstances.
The script is often pedestrian, though some lines show what could have been: “I fought a war and I cannot remember why” says Arthur to Merlin. Though in the best traditions of films about historical legends, the villains are mostly gifted the best lines. Modred has an occasional cruel wit when he’s not threatening to murder people, and sometimes while he is threatening to murder people; and the barbed conversation that sorceress Lady Vortigone has with Camelot’s Christian priest is fun. “He won’t last, this new nailed god of yours. I’m not sure it’s going to take hold in Britain,” she tells him, before they debate Modred’s unlikely Christian leanings.
Amidst the knights’ sometimes cod-medieval language, I liked their occasional earthiness, tempering the courtliness: “I’d sooner dip my cock in a witch’s cauldron” declares one as they face going into a forest that seems to channel dark magic. Never change, ex-knights of the round table, never change.
Signature Entertainment presents Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot on DVD & Digital HD from 13 July.
Modred and Guinevere are in the middle of being married by the Christian priest in Camelot castle. Arthur and his knights enter via a secret tunnel and burst into the room; the priest is shot dead with an arrow. Vortigone drags Guinevere out, and Modred taunts Arthur with Geuivere’s locket, which has a picture of Lancelot in it. Guinevere kills Antigone, saves Lancelot, and they escape. Poor Arthur sees them leaving on a horse – he returns devastated to the fighting, but instead of killing Modred in his rage, he sends him away.
The surviving nobles do him homage, though he tells them it is everyone’s Camelot. Then he takes his place on the throne.