Of all King Arthur-related movies, Merlin is my favorite. It bears little resemblance to a single familiar Arthurian story, but it has enough references to satisfy me while maintaining a coherent storyline, something few Arthurian movies manage. In this version, Merlin (Sam Neill) is a man created by Queen Mab of the Sidhe to save magic, which is waning in the world as Christianity spreads. Queen Mab fades as people cease to worship her. Merlin is not interested in his duty to save magic, however, and instead concerns himself with two things: his love for Nimue and protecting King Arthur from his terrible fate.
Merlin features some pieces from Arthurian myth that rarely appear in movies. The war against Vortigern is an early part of the myths that did not remain popular even in many medieval works, so I was delighted to see it here. This is also the only film I have found featuring Sir Gawain as a named character, if a minor one. King Lot initially decides to declare war against Arthur, but Gawain sides with Arthur against his father, a point of character development for that young man which leads to a touching reunion later. This storyline appears as part of Gawain’s youth in the Suite du Merlin, and I’m not sure if it was included here with purposeful reference to that text or if it was simply a convenient invention by the scriptwriters. I can think of no Arthurian myth featuring Queen Mab. However, she fits naturally into this storyline with a splendidly raspy performance by Miranda Richardson. Her gnomish shape-changing henchman, Frik, is played by Martin Short. Those two are the most delightful part of the film.
In this version, Morgawse is absent and Mordred is instead the son of Morgan le Fey (played by Helena Bonham-Carter). None of the canon works use this relationship and I’m not aware of any other modern versions that do, yet this change makes so much sense that it has taken me years to remember that Mordred is Morgawse’s son. The storyline contains some familiar elements, such as Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal, but these are relatively minor points in the storyline, as it focuses primarily on Merlin. Much of the plot concerns Merlin’s love for Nimue, who is an ordinary woman with no magic rather than a witch. The plot to trap Merlin in a mountain is still present, but it Queen Mab’s plot rather than Nimue’s invention. Some points are entirely new, such as when Merlin rescues Nimue from a dragon, then takes her to a nunnery at Avalon to recover from the burns. While not astoundingly original, these added elements fit the story.
I have no major criticisms of this film. It has plenty of points that disregard Arthurian myth or medieval history, but they don’t irritate me since the overall product is charming and does not reinforce my most hated medieval misconceptions. However, a point of warning: don’t watch the sequel. I don’t remember much of the sequel, but it must have been bad if I’ve blocked it from memory.