THE MISTS OF AVALON
Marion Zimmer Bradleys feminist sympathies were clearly reflected in The Mists of Avalon, which is essentially a feminist reinterpretation of the legends of King Arthur. The focus of The Mists of Avalon is all on the women of Camelot Guinevere, Igraine, the enigmatic character of the Lady of the Lake, Morgause (who is the mother of Mordred in some versions of the legend), but especially Morgaine, also known as Morgan le Fay. By giving the story this focus, Bradley turns the Arthurian legends on their head in extraordinary ways. An idea of exactly how revisionist The Mists of Avalon is being can surely be seen from the very opening scene where the story is being narrated by Morgaine who proceeds to tell how she is the most misunderstood figure of the legend. In any traditional interpretation, Morgaine is usually regarded as the villainess of the Arthurian cycle for having incestuously seduced Arthur but Marion Zimmer Bradley twists this on its head to suggest that both Arthur and Morgaine were innocent parties that were set up as dupes.
To see exactly how strikingly different Marion Zimmer Bradleys interpretation is one need do no more than place The Mists of Avalon up alongside the most other full-blooded and far more traditional cinematic interpretation of the Arthurian legends John Boormans Excalibur (1981). Excalibur depicts the rape of Igraine by Uther Pendragon whereas here Igraine is party to a complicity that is being stage-manoeuvred from behind the scenes by the Lady of the Lake. Arthur is not that important a figure in The Mists of Avalon indeed, both Lancelot and Guinevere are much more central characters than Arthur, while Merlin is sidelined almost entirely. The pulling of Sword from the Stone, which is the central facet of most other tellings of the Arthurian cycle, is a relatively unimportant piece of drama here, not the crucial scene where Arthur claims his destiny. The Round Table is of little importance Marion Zimmer Bradley is not at all interested in the chivalry that fires up the usual versions of the Arthurian legends. There is not even anything seen of Arthur and Guineveres romance. The interpretation that Marion Zimmer Bradley offers here is utterly striking. Equally so, Bradley not only deconstructs the Arthurian cycle but reweaves her own interpretation into an intensely absorbing plot of political chicanery.
Marion Zimmer Bradley also had well-known pagan sympathies her ashes were scattered at Glastonbury Tor after her death, for instance. The Mists of Avalon lets unleash with a full blast of Celtic paganism. The mini-series takes its Goddess worship, herbalism and respect for the Earth very seriously and shows it with great pseudo-cultural verisimilitude, even an undeniably Utopian appeal. There is even an appealingly thoughtful coda where Morgaine observes that Goddess worship has passed away but that it has taken on a new guise in the form of Catholicism and reverence of the Virgin Mary. The surprisingly strong pro-pagan element and often anti-Christian bias of the story takes one aback, leaving one amazed that the The Mists of Avalon did not end up causing protests from Moral Minority groups when it aired on tv. Even more daring is the outré sexual element. Bradley places a fascinating spin on the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere infidelity. Here Arthur observes the attraction between Lancelot and Guinevere and, when Guinevere cannot conceive due to Morgauses enchantments, sanctions Lancelot joining them in bed to help Guinevere to conceive. That the major sexual scenes of the mini-series involve an explicit threesome and the other is an incestual tryst between a brother and sister, it is amazing that conservative groups were not breaking down the doors of the network in protest.
The Mists of Avalon mini-series was made by German director Uli Edel. Edel appeared in the 1980s with the harrowing drug addiction drama Christiane F. (1981) and has since proven a versatile director who has made films that range all the way from the gritty Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), the trashy Madonna sexual thriller Body of Evidence (1993) to childrens films like The Little Vampire (2000) and the horror film Pay the Ghost (2015), as well as various tv movies and mini-series such as Rasputin (1996), Julius Caesar (2002), Ring of the Niebelungs (2004) and Houdini (2014).
Uli Edel directs some fine scenes. The Feast of Beltane sequence is unusually arresting, all with tattooed bodies, stylised masks and a deer hunt, shot in flaming light. It is a scene that has a striking and undeniable eroticism, which could have been even more intense had the mini-series been made for an adult audience and not constrained by tv censorship. One of the best scenes is where Lancelot visits Morgaine in Avalon and they look down upon Glastonbury seeing the Christian flower children passing by unnoticing, where Lancelot then asks Morgaine to part the mists for him and he meets one girl who looks up which turns out to be Guinevere. This is a beautifully written scene, especially in terms of introducing Guinevere and the attraction between her and Lancelot, and has a lovely ending where Morgaine lets the mists fall and Guinevere cannot see Avalon again and fearfully dismisses the two of them as being Faerie Folk. Edel manages a convincing depiction of the world the story takes place in with some good period sets, locations and expansive camerawork and mounts one big, spectacular battle scene at the climax.
Cast in the central role of Morgaine is Julianna Margulies, who became a high-profile name on the basis of her recurring role in tvs ER (1994-2009), although who has since failed to parlay her clout into the same sort of stardom that ER co-star George Clooney did, for instance. Alas, Margulies is bland as Morgaine. One would expect a role like Morgaine to have a dark ambiguity but Julianna Margulies gives a performance that only seems to drift through the show in a detached way. The mini-series certainly does feature some strong actresses with the likes of Anjelica Huston, Joan Allen, Caroline Goodall and Samantha Mathis but none of them give performances that stretch their acting capabilities. Angelica Huston brings her customary regality to the role of Viviane. As Morgause, Joan Allen seems to be channelling Miranda Richardson. Edward Atterton makes for a stolid Arthur. There are some interesting faces elsewhere. One can see Michael Vartan just before he became the male lead on tvs Alias (2001-5), as well as Freddie Highmore, the acclaimed child performer from Finding Neverland (2004), as the young Arthur. One surprise name on the credits is that of actor James Coburn, listed as executive producer, where Coburn apparently laboured for more than a decade to bring to the book to the screen. Although it is incongruous though to think of a mans man actor like James Coburn so passionately dedicated to an ardently feminist work like The Mists of Avalon.