Sometimes, if you leave yourself open, you trip over things that speak to you in unexpected ways. A song from an artist you normally can’t stand, a surprisingly wise observation from someone who’s otherwise an idiot, a book by an author you’ve previously (no pun intended) written off. And, if you’re like me, you might stumble on a DVD in a store and buy it on a whim, just because it’s about a topic you like. You don’t expect much, and then you find out it’s terrific.
Arthur and Merlin, a 2015 movie from England, is just such a surprise. It’s an unexpectedly fresh take on the Arthurian story, enlivened by sharp writing, great performances and an approach that mitigates the low budget; you don’t feel cheated of epic battle scenes because the story doesn’t lead you to expect them.
Arthur and Merlin begins with the boy Myrrdin watching his mother die at the hand of the evil druid Aberthol (Nigel Cooke, riding the edge between hammy and serious). When Aberthol calls for Myrrdin to be killed as well, young Arthfael saves him. Myrrdin vanishes into a forest haunted by the ancient gods, the Tuatha Dea (not the band). As a hermit there, he learns their magic, and so is ready to help an adult Arthfael when he comes searching.
That’s just the start, and I don’t intend to give a detailed synopsis. What I will tell you is that everything here works. Kirk Barker, as Arthfael/Arthur, is more than just a warrior; he’s also the kind of leader who inspires others to rise above their petty concerns. It’s a side of Arthur that seldom gets depicted, and Barker does great work bringing it to life.
His prickly relationship with Myrrdin/Merlin (Stefan Butler) is also a surprise. In place of the usual mentor relationship, the two are presented as contemporaries; the first person Arthur has to win over to his cause is the hermit wizard, who has no interest in the affairs of men. Once committed, Merlin is still his own man, not a sidekick; this is Butch and Sundance, not Batman and Robin.
The screenplay by director Marco van Belle and Kat Wood gives the actors a lot to work with, even down to the smaller parts. There’s a scene where a childhood friend rightly tears into Merlin for his failure to protect her people. It’s the kind of scene often left out of fantasy movies, a terrific bit of humanizing for Merlin and an insight into the fear he constantly denies. And it’s the sign of filmmakers who understand that when a movie lacks a budget, it can compensate with great writing, strong performances and a sure directorial hand.
I’ve often bemoaned (okay, bitched) about the crappy quality of our own low-budget fantasy movies. We’re apparently satisfied with Sharknado and its ilk, movies that are not just cheaply made, but cheaply thought out. There’s no reason a low-budget movie about sharks in a tornado couldn’t be clever, and funny, and even suspenseful, except that the makers don’t see any need for it. They know we’ll accept junk, so they give us junk. (A notable exception are the films produced by Utah’s Arrowstorm Entertainment, especially their Mythica series. Read more here.)
Arthur and Merlin isn’t junk. It’s a fully-formed movie world, rich with characters and a story that builds itself out of the standard Arthurian tropes in really surprising ways. I love all things Arthurian, and I really loved this movie. It surprised me, and I hope you give it a chance to surprise you, too.
(Arthur and Merlin is currently available at Wal-Mart and Target in the US, and is showing on Showtime’s Beyond and Family Zone channels. I should also mention you can check out my own Arthurian novel, Dark Jenny, one of my Eddie LaCrosse series. Scroll down to find a free preview of the first chapter here.)