Merlin: Series FiveBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 December 2012 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Merlin: Series 5
Merlin Series 5
Written by Julian Jones (head writer)
Produced by Sara Hamill
Broadcast BBC One 6th October - 24 December 2012
"In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young man..."

Time and time again, we've heard those same words introduce each and every episode of Merlin, depicting the eponymous hero’s struggle with destiny and fate in the realms of Camelot. No one can deny that BBC1’s fantasy drama has proved a staggering rendition of the Arthurian legends of old ever since its début in 2008, but equally it would be impossible to deny the weight of expectations fans placed on the fifth and final season of the show this year. Could Julian Jones and his assembled production team ever truly satisfy the needs of this cult hit’s most avid followers?

Certainly, the signs weren't clear-cut in the opening stages of the run. For all its Game Of Thrones-riffing action and introductions of key elements of Arthurian lore (Mordred’s return a point of major interest), the opening two-parter Arthur’s Bane at times felt like a worrying rehash of stories gone by, recycling Kate McGrath’s portrayal of Morgana as a tired pantomime villain with little in the way of empathetic material. Before we knew it, Colin Morgan’s titular protagonist was portrayed in an unrealistic manner, goading Arthur to enforce the murder of a man only the warlock could know posed a greater threat in the long run. Thankfully, these suspicions and their implications on the character of Merlin became more compelling and believable as the season progressed, yet confined here they seemed vastly unfaithful to the legacy of the King’s greatest ally.

From here on out we moved into a number of standalone instalments that were met with mixed results and critical reception. The Death Song Of Uther Pendragon was little more than an unashamed rip-off of the horror movie genre, utilising predictable jump frights and spiritual hauntings to almost comic effect, so unbefitting were they of the show’s prior greatness. Another Sorrow was a slightly better yarn focusing on divisions of the realms surrounding Camelot, yet suffered from feeling like something of a non-event. Thank goodness, then, that The Disir came along to shake things up, placing a greater emphasis on the overall season’s narrative arc by placing Alexander Vlahos at the heart of the week’s mystery. Indeed, when Vlahos did step into the limelight for a fully-fledged performance as the man allegedly destined to kill Arthur, we as viewers could feel the colossal step up in episode quality as a result.

Angel Coulby had her time to shine as a budding British actress here, too: as fans had hoped, with The Dark Tower Coulby’s performing talents were showcased in great measure, with Gwen put to devastating psychological torture thanks to the schemes and manipulations of Morgana. Here, McGrath did come into her own, providing an emotive performance that was worlds apart from her character’s previous actions, and from here on out McGrath set a brilliant precedent which she did not fail to meet and match in the weeks that followed. The fall of Elyan in this sixth episode came as an unexpected surprise, and once again heightened the sense that no regular character was truly safe as the horns of war rang and the battle of Camlann beckoned.

After that successfully creepy romp, though, the season moved into what was by far its greatest failure. We've seen possessed opera singers, gaseous trolls and poorly implemented special effects aplenty in the five years that Merlin has graced our screens, yet few elements of the show have seemed quite as misjudged as the ill-fated 'Puppet Queen' trilogy. A Lesson In Vengeance, The Hollow Queen and With All My Heart were decent standalone instalments, yet only really served to have us question just why if the show’s producers knew this season would be their last, they did not trim the episode count down to a more feasible ten whereby they would not have to stretch out the narrative arc so much. By the time Colin Morgan had inhabited the guise of a female version of Merlin, it’s fair to say that the comedy of this tired trio of episodes had long worn off, regardless of the gravity and foreboding of ‘her’ departing words to the King.

The solution to this mid-season crisis? The tenth episode of the run, which carried a number of surprises and memorable moments. The Kindness Of Strangers presented an ambiguous Druid ally (portrayed wonderfully by Sorcha Cusack) who held a few choice words of wisdom for Merlin regarding his destiny, and while there was little of real substance to drive the season’s arc forward, it was a strong emotive tale. If fans needed an instance in which they could definitively assure the sceptics that this compelling series was worth a watch, then this adventure was definitely it- and the good times didn't end there...

Whenever a show wraps up, there are naturally going to be strengths and weaknesses involved within its final trilogy of episodes. Thankfully, for the most part The Drawing Of The Dark and The Diamond Of The Day didn't fail to impress, providing amongst Merlin’s most captivating performances yet. Colin Morgan and Bradley James mastered their roles as two of England’s most famous characters of lore, conflicted by the turn of Mordred (brought across brilliantly by Vlahos), then forced to separate in the midst of war, only to find themselves inevitably joined together again as the king faced his impending demise. The final moments we witnessed between these two iconic legendary incarnations were both touching and fan-pleasing, harking back to their first meeting and reversing the roles with the much-needed revelation of the magical secret that’s spurred the show on these past five years.

It’s probably fair to say that it was with the season finale The Diamond Of The Day Part 2 where things faltered just a little. It was still a relatively strong episode, packing many of the shocking twists that have made the programme such a joy to watch, yet its conclusion felt somewhat rushed. Character arcs weren’t always given a proper resolution (how will Gwen continue the line of succession, for instance?), and the supposedly innovative throw-forward to modern day England for a glimpse of Merlin’s eternal wait for the resurrection of Arthur’s legacy didn't quite hit the mark in the way it was intended. Even for a series that’s thrived on throwing in surprising twists on the lore of old, for me as a viewer this felt like a step too far, one attempt too many to play on our expectations. Then again, you’d have to wonder how the writers could ever have done things differently in terms of the climax without seeming over-indulgent or nostalgic.

Where does that leave the fifth and final season of Merlin, then? In short, while there are a good few missteps along the way, and it’s hard not to wonder why the episode count was trimmed down, it’s still a relatively consistent run. I wouldn't quite place it up with the best of 2012’s offerings- Sherlock Series Two and Doctor Who Series Seven Part One the greatest of Britain’s roster- yet there was still plenty enough reason to follow the show for its final twelve weeks. In a time of masses watching reality rubbish and a land of soap domination, it has been refreshing to see an indie drama rise up the ranks with such vigour and confidence over the course of half a decade, and with the broadcast of Merlin: The Diamond Of The Day Part 2, it's clear that BBC1's greatest fantasy saga has earned its place among the best of Britain's televisual history books.




Life of PiBookmark and Share

Sunday, 23 December 2012 - Reviewed by Kieron Moore
Reviewed by Kieron Moore
Life of Pi: Poster
Life of Pi
Written by Yann Martel
Screenplay by David Magee
Directed by Ang Lee
Released on 21 November 2012 (USA)
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK release of the film.

Released in 2001, Yann Martel’s modern fable Life of Pi was a literary hit, winning the Man Booker Prize and the hearts of readers worldwide. It was, however, deemed by many impossible to translate to the screen. How could the sense of spirituality and adventure be brought to cinema? How could a story set almost entirely on a small lifeboat be made watchable? How would they get the tiger to do all that without eating the crew?

Step in Ang Lee, a talented director whose filmography, encompassing Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Hulk, can only be described as ‘eclectic’.

Sticking close to the novel, Lee frames the story through a visit to a middle aged Indian man named Pi (established Bollywood lead Irrfan Khan) by a writer (Rafe Spall, who’s now broken free of being merely "Timothy’s son" and has a pretty good career going for himself). The writer has been told that Pi has a story which will make him believe in God. "I cannot tell you what to believe," says Pi, "I can only tell you my story."

And so Pi embarks on telling his eponymous life, and it truly is a fantastical life. Raised in a zoo in Pondicherry, Pi was a spiritually greedy child, wanting to follow all the religions and coming into conflict with his scientifically minded father when he tried to see emotion in the eyes of tiger Richard Parker (named through a "clerical error"). Pi’s family are forced to move the zoo to Canada when faced with financial difficulties, but their ship is hit by a storm and Pi finds himself stranded in a lifeboat with an angry hyena, an unhappy orang-utan, an injured zebra, and his old acquaintance Richard Parker. It’s no big spoiler to say that three out of four of these animals don’t last long and the heart of the story is Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker as the two drift the Pacific together.

What keeps the film going during this long period of Pi’s isolation is the two main performances and the beautiful look of the film. Though newcomer Suraj Sharma, as the younger Pi, hasn’t yet mastered quieter, more reflective emotion, in the more active sequences he energetically captures the anger, the confusion, and finally, the determination that Pi goes through on his journey. As Richard Parker, and as a whole host of other creatures, the CGI in the film is remarkable. The film has a magical realist feel; nothing ever looks out of place, and Claudio Miranda’s cinematography brings the vast ocean to life with a series of gorgeous tableaux. Shots such as a bird’s eye view of the lifeboat as a whale passes below it were obviously devised with 3D in mind, not to mention the tiger jumping at the screen and the enormous horde of flying fish. For fans of 3D, it’s an experience to be immersed in, though for sceptics, it’s still an amazing looking film in two dimensions. I have to go off track slightly and mention the title sequence, a journey through the Indian zoo, bringing in flamingos, a hippo, one of those monkeys with the funny noses, and much more. The sequence is beautifully shot, with vibrant, lush colouring, and sums up the relaxed, spiritual ethos of the film.

This is a mindset that continues through Pi’s time on the boat, as, like at several points in his childhood, he takes the opportunity to connect with God. As an atheist, I would have personally liked a little less rumination on the nature of God and a little less of Pi’s stern belief that, whenever something remotely fortuitous happens, he is being saved by a divine being, but it is worth noting that the film does counter this with the scepticism of the writer and of Pi’s father. Also worth noting is the way the film deals with Pi’s relationship with nature – despite what you may foresee from Pi’s childhood experience with Richard Parker, the human-tiger relationship is never overly sentimentalised; Richard Parker is clearly a dangerous creature, there’s always a conflict going on, and Pi’s side of the relationship is most definitely concerned with not getting eaten. The tiger is vicious and entirely believable as a tiger, but through the careful storytelling and the way it highlights the beauty within that vicious nature, we end up caring for it anyway.

In the end, that’s what Life of Pi is about – storytelling. Pi’s story is a fable told through his recounting to the writer and, though I don’t want to give anything away, the final part of this framing dialogue rounds off the story in a way which made me reassess the rest of the film and, in fact, reduced some of my issues with the overly spiritual tone of the piece. It’s an intriguing ending which will make you question the nature of storytelling.

Life of Pi, to sum up, can be very spiritual at times, which may not be to some tastes, and, perhaps contrary to that, it ‘s not exactly cheery in its depiction of nature, but it makes that roughness of the world into a visually stunning film with a sad, iconic and elegantly told story at heart. It’s a treat for the senses and one to get you thinking.




Editorial: reviewers requiredBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 11 December 2012 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
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