The Dallas Morning News
Publication: Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service; Author: Bark, Ed
Three seasons removed from NBC's "Merlin," here's another sword-in-the-stone miniseries hoping to hold you spellbound. TNT's "The Mists of Avalon" keeps the wizened wizard at bay, focusing instead on the women wielding power behind King Arthur's throne.
Morgause, Morgaine, Igraine, Viviane and Gwenhwfar are a tongue-twisting quintet brandishing Rapunzel-caliber tresses. They drive the intertwining story lines of a four-hour production that lags in the early going and sometimes seems more than a bit silly.
Still, it eventually blooms and grows enough to take root, even if characters continue to look young as springtime in their approaching autumn years. Ye olde? Hardly. King Arthur adds a toy beard to his puss, but his baby face is still ready-made for "Dawson's Creek."
Mist's top-of-the-marquee women are meant to be its crowning glory, though. Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston ("Prizzi's Honor"), Oscar nominee Joan Allen ("Nixon," "The Crucible," "The Contender") and Emmy-winner Julianna Margulies ("ER") respectively play Viviane, Morgause and Morgaine.
Margulies' character is front and center as the narrator and pivot point. Will she carry on the "old ways" (paganism) in the face of Christianity's encroachment? Or will her would-be mentor, Viviane (Huston), be the last "Lady of the Lake" presiding as high priestess over idyllic, mist-shrouded and endangered Avalon?
Standing between them is power-craving Morgause (Allen), sinister sister to both Viviane and Igraine (Caroline Goodall). Igraine and her first husband, Gorlois (a sometimes laughably manly Clive Russell) are parents of Morgaine. But Viviane's grand plan calls for Gorlois' demise and Igraine's remarriage to Uther Pendragon (Mark Lewis Jones). They'll then become parents of Arthur, whose fealty to both Christian and pagan beliefs supposedly will preserve Avalon.
Too bad that Arthur and Morgaine, now his half-sister, are fated to mate without knowing each other's identities during the mondo bizarro Beltane Feast. It's that fun time of the year in which she plays a masked virgin huntress to his likewise concealed King Stag. Their unintended offspring is Mordred (Hans Matheson), who's molded into a despot by the evil Morgause. Meanwhile, Arthur marries Gwenhwyfar (Samantha Mathis), more commonly known as Guinevere in most screen treatments. But she likes Lancelot (Michael Vartan) better, and Morgaine has a crush on him, too.
All of this might seem tougher to swallow than boar's meat. "Mists of Avalon" is reasonably decipherable, though, and probably a snap for daytime soap devotees. "Days of Our Lives" in armor anyone?
Most of the performances are sturdy without being exceptional. Look in vain for an embossed, signature scene from either Huston or Allen. Margulies gets appreciably more screen time and manages an affecting turn or two. But the lone electric moments are from Matheson as warped Mordred. His glower power rivals that of Joaquin Phoenix, particularly in a close encounter with Allen shortly after Merlin (Michael Byrne) signs off in Part II.
"Mists of Avalon" also includes haunting mood music from Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt, whose "The Mystic's Dream" is the title theme. McKennitt's compositions earlier graced CBS' superb but shortlived "EZ Streets" series. For continued listening pleasure, buy her 1994 "The Mask and Mirror" CD, which includes "Mystic's Dream" and seven other tracks.
Tell `em Uther Pendragon sent you.