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The twisted ambition of Excalibur's Morgana
There are so many reasons to love the delightfully cheesy 1981 John Boorman film Excalibur. The insane amount of glitter alone would be enough to recommend it. There's also the very, very weird voice Nicol Williamson used as Merlin, his shiny metal headpiece, the excessive amount of netting (there must have been a sale at the fish market), the weird green lighting, the Studio 54-esque clothing, severed limbs that squirt like we’re watching a Monty Python sketch, the guy with the weird pom pom on his head, the sword tip-kissing... need we go on? The film stars a young Patrick Stewart who manages to look exactly the same as he does now, not to mention Liam Neeson rocking a man bun. However, the clear standout in this very weird retelling of the King Arthur story is Helen Mirren as the sorceress Morgana.
If you haven’t seen it (and you must), here is a quick refresher about Morgana. The wizard Merlin uses magic to disguise King Arthur’s father Uther as Morgana’s father Gorlois as Gorlois is dying on the battlefield so he can sleep with Morgana and Arthur’s mother Igrayne. Not a great trick, and little Morgana knows how slippery that magician can be. Stealing a baby doesn't exactly make Merlin a good guy. Later, when Merlin falls in love with Morgana but refuses to teach her magic, she imprisons him in a cave, screws her brother to conceive Mordred, then gives the young man a glitter shower (a stand-in for magic here, but shiny all the same), because that apparently will keep you safe in battle. Merlin’s ghost/spirit/see-through vision tricks Morgana into using up her power and aging, which, of course, leads her very creepy son to strangle her. Mordred and Arthur kill each other, and some ladies take Arthur’s body away in a boat.
Morgana has us on her side when she imprisons Merlin, though she becomes twisted in the end. Still, in a way, she’s an early feminist fantasy icon. She takes revenge on the man who uses her mother as a sexual pawn without regard for her feelings or intentions and who kidnaps her little brother. She wields more power than any of the other women in the court. She takes control of her own magic, seeking out a teacher, and when he snatches the knowledge away from her, practically saying “nyah nyah,” she gets revenge in the only way she knows how: using the Charm of Making to lock him away forever.
So what if she wants to keep herself young with the charm? She’s doing it for herself. She’s not in court, trying to compete with the sparkly ladies. They don’t exist anymore, since Arthur got sick. She’s hanging with her kid… oiling him up for battle… ahem… and telling him he’s a god… okay, fine. She may have gone all wonky as the years went on, but unlike the court beauties, or even Queen Guenevere, who barely bothers to defend herself from adultery allegations, Morgana at least tries to live a life of power and fulfillment. Hey, she doesn’t tell Gawain (a very young Neeson with whom Mirren ended up in a relationship after the film) to accuse the Queen and Lancelot. She merely suggests that he look at Guen’s face. What? That’s not wrong. She’s got skills. She wants to use them. She wants lessons. She doesn’t want her brother to get screwed by his wife and best buddy. She goes overboard, but maybe that’s because no one takes her seriously, magic is leaving the land, and the One God is eclipsing the Many Gods and all that.
In a film that is beyond goofy (which you know from the ridiculously cartoonish font they use for the story introduction), Mirren is the undeniable acting standout as Morgana. Her Shakespearian background really gives her an edge. Even in scenes where she’s in the background and veiled, your eyes can’t help but focus on her. You can practically see the other actors thinking about lunch or the swarm of bugs in the scene that weren't cut out in post. In Mirren’s eyes, you see a woman that’s been twisted by the manipulation of the men around her, and later, by her ambition. Plus, the woman absolutely rocks that metal breastplate.
Almost every version of Morgana, as far back as we can read, shows a woman with power. Despite the fact that the stories are trying to condemn her, and later, by extension, the pagan religion that was disappearing, she always emerges as a strong woman who lives her own version of life. She’s not content to sit on the sidelines. She does her own thing, glitter and all, because she can.