R. I. P. Nicol Williamson 1936-2012

The brilliant but erratic actor Nicol Williamson has passed away from esophageal cancer. Sadly Netflix streaming does not have my three favorite Nicol Williamson performances – Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Percent Solution, Merlin in Excalibur, or Little John in Robin and Marian. Four of his performances are currently available:

Inadmissable Evidence (1968) – NR

“London solicitor Bill Maitland (Nicol Williamson, who received a BAFTA nod for his compelling performance) treats his clients terribly and is hated by his colleagues. He’s unfaithful to his wife (Eleanor Fazan) and cruel to children. Based on a play by John Osborne, this intriguing character study manages to turn the misanthropic Maitland into an antihero the audience roots for, revealing a glimmer of humanity underneath his unpleasant actions.”

An excellent starring performance by Nicol Williamson – this is not a legal thriller like the name would imply but more of a depressing character study.

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) – Rated PG

“Inspired by writer Peter Driscoll’s novel about apartheid in South Africa, The Wilby Conspiracy follows the attempts of two men, British engineer Jim Koegh (Michael Caine) and activist Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier), to escape from the police, led by the menacing Major Horn (Nicol Williamson). Their only connection is Jim’s girlfriend (Prunella Gee), a lawyer who defended Shack against charges of racial agitation.”

A good if dated thriller – Nicol Williamson gives quite an evil performance here.

Black Widow (1987) – Rated R

“Director Bob Rafelson’s superbly crafted thriller stars Debra Winger as Alexandra Barnes, an inquiring federal investigator who becomes intrigued — then fixated — when she stumbles across an unusual pattern of deaths by seemingly natural causes. The common bond among the victims? They’re all rich, reclusive and leave behind the same sultry young widow (Theresa Russell). Can Alexandra crack the case without getting tangled in a web of murder?”

A fun thriller but not really a showcase for Nicol Williamson.

The Advocate (1993) – Rated R

“How far jurisprudence has come! This medieval court drama is set in the days when humans and animals were believed to harbor the devil. Courtois, an educated lawyer (Colin Firth), leaves the big city to find peace in the countryside but soon discovers acts of murder and mayhem that are holding a small hamlet in fear. To the townsfolk, Courtois’s intelligence is nearly as mysterious as witchcraft.”

This is the only one of the four I’ve never seen though it sounds intriguing.

Excalibur

Netflix currently has Excalibur available on instant play.

Excalibur

WATCH: Excalibur (1981) – Rated R

“Visionary director John Boorman serves up a lush interpretation of Thomas Malory’s classic novel Le Morte d’Arthur. Boorman weaves a rich tapestry that includes humble squire Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone; the Round Table’s righteous birth and ultimate decline; Guenevere and Lancelot’s adultery; the changing balance of power between crafty magician Merlin and wicked sorceress Morgana; and the valiant quest for the Holy Grail.”

While I love this film, I do feel it should be called King Arthur’s Greatest Hits. The film moves swiftly from section to section of the Arthurian mythos. It really needs a well-funded miniseries to do it justice or perhaps a multi-film series a la Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thankfully as an adult fantasy, Excalibur is cheerfully unabashedly R-rated. This was back before all the bean-counters insisted that everything be rated PG-13 (witness the emasculation of Conan as he moves from Barbarian to Destroyer or John McClane not being able to use his Yippie-Kay-Yay quote).

The scenery, shot mostly in Ireland, is gorgeous. Showing the land growing more and more physically beautiful as Arthur is in his prime and more and more bleak after Lancelot’s betrayal is handled wonderfully by Boorman. There is an especially beautiful waterfall scene during Lancelot’s introduction. The Lady in the Lake scenes are marvelous as are any scenes with Merlin. The green backlighting of most forest shots gives everything an eerie lush glow. Set design and costuming are wonderful as well though an early scene of a knight in full armor having sex with a woman just looks terribly painful and detracts from the purpose of the scene.

John Boorman’s presents a triple-tiered cast here. The leads Nigel Terry (Arthur), Cherie Lunghi (Guinevere), and Nicholas Clay (Lancelot) are all serviceable in their parts but seem a bit plain. The supporting actors are wonderful especially Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgana and feature very early performances from famous actors (unknown at the time). The third-tier of the cast is Boorman’s own family. Boorman’s son Charley plays boy Mordred and his daughter Katrine plays Igrayne (how do you direct your daughter during a nude scene?).

Almost everything in this film works well. The action sequences are rousing. Orff’s Carmina Burana is an inspired choice of music for this film and is used more than once in it. All aspects of this film that should be beautiful are beautiful and those that should be bleak are bleak. This is probably the lushest fantasy film prior to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and is highly recommended.

People Watch: Wow huge before they were stars here – check out Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Gawain and Gabrial Byrne as Uther Pendragon.

Robin and Marian

Two years after filming two of the best swashbucklers ever made back-to-back – The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (sadly not available on Netflix), Richard Lester made this gem. Robin and Marian is currently available on instant play.

Robin and Marian

WATCH: Robin and Marian (1976) – Rated PG

“Whatever became of Robin Hood after his famed tale of good deeds ended? Now you can find out, in this sequel that takes place years after Robin and his merry men bested the Sheriff of Nottingham. After following Richard the Lionhearted to the crusades, Robin (Sean Connery) returns to Sherwood Forest to find things drastically changed. Audrey Hepburn plays the stalwart Marian … who’s joined a nunnery!”

This is an absolutely wonderful counterpoint to yesterday’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. While that film celebrates youthful exuberance and heroics, Robin and Marian is a testament to the aging and fading of heroes and the power and danger of love. Robin and Marian’s cast is as impressive as The Adventures of Robin Hood’s cast. Charismatic and wry, Sean Connery is riveting as an aging Robin Hood. Thankfully Marian’s role is considerably beefed up as Audrey Hepburn returned to the screen from a nine-year absence to make this and she is absolutely amazing. Robert Shaw is marvelously sympathetic as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Nicol Williamson is heart-breaking as Little John.

The film was written by James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter and Nicholas and Alexandria and much of the credit for this complex exploration of love, devotion, and heroism is deservedly his. While Robin and Marian are still obviously in love, Robin is torn between his love of Marian and his love of glory. Marian is torn between her love of Robin and despair over his nature. Little John clearly loves Robin and knows that Robin is part of what defines him. Even the Sheriff seems to love Robin after a fashion. The first act plays out as a microcosm of the rest of the movie. Robin loves his King, Richard (the ever wonderful Richard Harris) loves his subject Robin as well as glory and Little John loves Robin.

People Watch: Look for Ian Holm in a small role as King John.