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"Merlin' casts spell with performances

Merlin, an ambitious two-part miniseries, offers vision and sweep with beautiful cinematography, sparkling special effects and moving performances.

A historical interpretation of the Arthurian myth, the story is an allegory of the conflict between paganism and Christianity. Queen Mab and the Lady of the Lake are wholly in the old paradigm while Merlin is a transitional figure, half-wizard, half-human. After Merlin, the art of magic will disappear.

The first night establishes the Arthurian legend as seen by Merlin (Sam Neill). He recounts the story of the first Christian king (John Gielgud) who becomes a tyrant _ overthrown, only to be replaced by another tyrant. Merlin is created by Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) to help her battle new anti-magic ideologues, but he resists using his power except in the service of good.

As a young man, Merlin falls in love with Nimue (Isabella Rossellini), but he is drawn away from her to help King Uther ascend to the throne. When that action proves disastrous, he schemes to raise the king's son, Arthur.

The second night is about Arthur (Paul Curran): how he becomes king; is seduced by Morgan Le Fey (Helena Bonham Carter), who has his son, Mordred (Jason Done); marries Guinevere (Lena Heady); searches for the Holy Grail; and returns to finds his kingdom in chaos.

Mordred forces Arthur to try Guinevere for treason, and the Knights of the Round Table are never the same. In the aftermath, Merlin is banished. He finds Nimue, loses her, then finds her again in a memorable scene depicting the last act of magic.

The performances are uneven, but director Steve Barron gets gold from Neill and Rossellini. Neill pulls off wizardry with aplomb and style; Rossellini is luminous and graceful. And Martin Short as Frik is spectacular.

One major role _ Queen Mab, as played by Richardson _ is overplayed. Her hatred of Merlin and Arthur appears as the personal vendetta of a shrew rather than an inevitable conflict arising from commitments to alternative value systems.

To a lesser degree, some of the same problems affect Bonham Carter's Morgan Le Fey; however, the character's motivation is more accessible and her behavior is more restrained. In addition, there are a couple of lovely moments between her and Frik that should not be missed.

The production values make this quite enjoyable, particularly the marvelous digital creatures and special effects.

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