Camelot Episode 1.1 ‘Homecoming’ Review

Posted on March 5, 2011


Camelot, Ep. 1.01 'Homecoming'

Camelot Titles

Summary: A lavish and assured start to a grounded but driven retelling of the ages-old Arthurian legend.
Rating: 8/10

** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the episode.**

Review Trailer
The quick skinny on the episode.

Full of vengeance and spite over feeling her mother was tossed aside and forgotten about, Morgan Le Fay kills her father Uther Pendragon, the king of Britain, and banishes her stepmother so that she may assume the role as royal head of the country. Morgan makes a pact with Uther’s chief rival, Lot of Lothian and Orkney, to take advantage of his power and reach. Unbeknownst to her, Uther and Igraine sired an heir that the sorcerer Merlin hid with commonfolk to protect the future. Merlin gathers the heir, Arthur, and tells him of his lineage and rightful place as King of the country. He also has Morgan, Lot and other dukes and lords meet them at the old ruin of Camelot to recognize Arthur as the true next-in-line.

Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.

Starz seems to have found a formula for its distinctive, winning series: period epics dressed up with the sex and language that premium pay cable allows. It’s what has turned an exploitative series like Spartacus: Blood and Sand – and its limited-run prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena – into a beaming success and paved the way for an ambitious retelling of the Arthurian legend in Camelot.

Just like with Spartacus, these trappings reveal themselves to be mere enticements that don’t truly represent or reflect the true strength of the show: the writing. Unlike its Roman-based kin, which took me two to three episodes to succumb to, this strength is displayed right from the get-go in a literate and well-informed pilot script.

I have always been a fan of King Arthur’s stories. In fact, when I was in an advanced extra-curricular education program in middle school (way back when), one of the classes I elected to participate in was specifically devoted to studying Arthurian legend. As a writer, I’ve always been keen on developing my own Arthurian film, but it’s such a well-hewn path that it’s hard to find the appropriate “in” to tell the story. Even Camelot feels a bit familiar, informed by elements of John Boorman’s Excalibur; the two Halmi Merlin mini-series with Sam Neil; the deconstructive King Arthur with Clive Owen in the lead role; and the BBC’s recent Smallville-inspired Merlin series. There is also a tone and texture influenced by the Showtime series The Tudors.

All of these influences actually merge well together on-screen with an excellent concept that allows the series places to go with its story. By starting with Arthur so young, the potential to mine this material for years and seasons is vast. If they can hold on to their players – Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green in particular – I’m interested to see just how much of the story they want to cover and end up getting to.

One of the more appealing aspects of this pilot episode was the brisk pace of the events. They start Arthur out in the traditional hero myth role of the put-upon “common” man. It’s a shrewd choice in that it allows us more exposition to set up this world as Arthur becomes exposed to it all for the first time. Thankfully, they didn’t spend a whole lot of time with a reluctant Arthur. Yes, the boy king is in way over his head, but it would be tiresome if he spent the whole first episode kicking around his adopted family’s homestead while deciding if he wants to embark on a grand adventure. I also like the fact that he brought his adopted brother, Kay, with him. As Arthur will come to rely on his Knights of the Round Table as a brethren, this plants the first seeds of that aspect of the character. A man made stronger by the company he keeps.

Obviously, the most realized character on display in the premiere is Eva Green’s Morgan Le Fay. In just the few opening scenes, she’s already got a nicely drawn backstory. I do look forward to her shading Morgan with more layers as the series goes forward. She played within the realm of the bitchy aspects of her Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale the majority of her time on-screen. Yes, Morgan is a mean, nasty witch, hellbent on Arthur’s downfall and the destruction of Camelot for her own gains. But she should be shifty and less outright vile. We’ll have to see how things shake out following the mourning period Lot gave Arthur for his adopted mother.

James Purefoy was also a treat in the episode, making Lot into a brute who would be king. He wears his id and his ego on either side of his armor and it makes for great scenery chewing. The point where he walks out of the hall when Morgan and Queen Igraine first meet Arthur was delicious. He’s also uncompromising, which plays a nice contrast against the novice liege.

The two I have issue with are also the two main focii of the story: Fiennes as Merlin and Jaime Campbell Bower as Arthur. Bower did a fine job in the episode, starting out a little rough by seeming to grow into the plot as it went along. My issue is that he’s somewhat of a slight actor and I’m not sure if he’s going to have the presence or the skill to effectively grow with the role. It’s one episode, so I’ll give him the benefit, but he does seem a bit weak. It works now, at this stage. It’s later that will be the concern.

As for Fiennes, I’m running into the same problem with his intensity that I had trying to follow him on FlashForward. He has gravitas and flair, but his scowl, furrowed brow, and dour line readings that always seem filled with menace make him quite unsympathetic. I’m not sure I’d want to spend much time with the character if he’s just going to be an angry taskmaster the entire time. If Fiennes can reclaim some of the charm he displayed in Shakespeare in Love, I could see Merlin being fun as well as devious. There’s a brief moment when Arthur decides to go with Merlin where the wizard/man-at-arms displays a puckish grin that belies potential. Also, while recounting the story of Uther’s deception to sleep with Cornwall’s wife that sired Arthur, he seems to be enjoying the moments.

I’m actually quite a fan of the rugged and run-down look of this world. It feels lived in and helps to ground the story. That Camelot is a relic of Roman occupation on the edge of a severe cliff both diminishes the legend and also holds great promise. In many tellings of the story, Arthur has Camelot built from the ground up as a city unlike any ever seen by man. In the fashion of this version, the abandoned castle gives them something to visually strive for, the rebuilding of once-proud glory and the hope and possibility of a greater future. I must admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by Camelot when they showed it in the establishing shot. Once inside the great hall, though, with that look to the delapidated ceiling, the scale was immense and almost intimidating. It speaks to the reach and ambition of the production.

I also like the fact that the show doesn’t shy from sorcery. For some reason, there is this schism in the last couple of decades regarding telling this type of story. It’s either complete fantasy, losing a connection with reality that lessens its weight; or it’s pushed all the way to the other side of spectrum where no magic is allowed to live in favor of more of a sword and armor historical epic couched in the violence of films like Braveheart.

All in all, ‘Homecoming’ is an assured start for a series that shows great potential to be one of the definitive adaptations of this ages-old tale. It’s not flawless but as pilots go it presents itself well. There’s also a great exchange between Arthur and Merlin about fate and destiny and how destiny is not just handed to you but must be won. It’s a great battle cry for the series that looks like it wants to earn the various facets of the legend and not just throw them at the audience like a foregone conclusion.

Posted in: Camelot, Television