We’ve been blindsided by stories of Arthur and Merlin, beguiled by their fabled exploits in a multimedia barrage that’s left creatives working overtime to attract any attention. BBC’s Merlin took the wizened sage and showed off his troubled younger years to great effect, and first-time feature director Marco van Belle has done one better.
Arthur and Merlin is ostensibly an origin story, starting off in childhood to see the duo’s fractured start in life, before flashing forward fifteen years. Where it differs from the uber-realism of 2004’s Clive Owen vehicle King Arthur, is a total reappraisal of the source material and upping the fantastical with a twist in the myth. Arthfael, a young Celtic warrior, teams up with the reluctant wizard Myrrdin to defeat an evil druid and save their people.
It’s a hearty return to sword and sorcery when the landscape of fantasy is getting bloated and po-faced. Even in the constraints of its meagre budget, the cinematography is staggering, capturing a picturesque England across twenty-one different locations. Because of the lack of tangible sets, besides a few tents, it’s easy to believe in its Dark Ages setting.
The script, written by van Belle and Kat Wood, has the wonderful clunky dialogue of a David Eddings novel. By extension, many of performances are wonky, with Arthfae himself (Kirk Barker) on the wooden side. Genre alumni David Sterne makes for a charismatic and powerful King Vortigern, and relative newcomer Stefan Butler leaving a surprising impression as the titular wizard.
Arthur and Merlin is a triumph of British independent filmmaking and a modern fantasy staple. Van Belle has conjured an atmospheric adventure, full of quirky campiness, rollicking good humour and, most importantly, fun.