Paul Risker reviews the TV miniseries Labyrinth….
Stumbling across an archaeological find, Alice (Vanessa Kirby) begins to experience haunting dreams featuring a woman from the past. Her discovery uncovers a genocide committed nearly 800 years ago, and starts a journey in which she will discover the secrets of the Holy Grail.
It is difficult to contemplate Labyrinth without considering the irony which derives from Channel 4’s decision to screen it Easter weekend. A holy event in the Christian calendar, it celebrates the continuation of life through the resurrection of Christ. Labyrinth’s theme of reincarnation, of the crusade against the Cathar religion and the ensuing genocide – not a glowing depiction of Christianity – is by no means a pro-Christian drama for this past weekend.
Sarah Dempster writing for The Guardian summarised it with the compromising compliment: “Labyrinth is silly but enjoyable cobblers.” She has a point. Whilst it was always unlikely to be a drama that served as both entertainment and a decisive exploration of the bloody events that beset the Languedoc region in the south of France from 1209-1229, Labyrinth was at its heart what it was always intended to be: a good old fashioned yarn. Its two strong leads: Alaïs (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Oriane Congost (Katie McGrath) amidst an underused supporting cast garner our interest and/or sympathy, though the cast are there more to aid in telling a good yarn than to aid in a serious and decisive exploration of the subject. That said Labyrinth still serves as an introduction to events in European and religious history, brought to light by a fictitious and dramatic retelling, with the greatest mythological treasure thrown in for good measure: The Holy Grail.
Labyrinth demands patience, a drama not so much made by its ending as one which brings the theme of reincarnation to fruition, amidst a narrative which struggles under the weight of juxtaposing the past and the present. For the majority of the180 minute running time, the past storyline is the arc which is more fully realised, having the unfortunate and often frustrating effect that the characters in the present played by Vanessa Kirby, Claudia Gerini, John Hurt and Sebastian Stan feel underused. This is in spite of Labyrinth’s flashbacks deriving from Alice’s discovery of the Labyrinth cave. Sadly, for much of the mini-series, and which serves as a distraction, the present with its mystery is more of a tease and an excuse – both a means to journey back to 13th century France and to prop up the reincarnation theme.
It is John Hurt who rather conveniently voices the line that is the lynchpin of the story. In that wonderfully low, subtle and reflective Hurtian tone he explains to Alice, “We carry our past with us in our blood, in our bones. All our lives, our common histories are intertwined.” This is a moment which occurs late in the second episode and brings to fruition Labyrinth’s intent to develop the present characters not so much by their present selves, but developed and given identity through their 13th century incarnations.
With the motion of a swinging pendulum, Labyrinth swings back and forth between past and present, and we become acquainted with Alice (Vanessa Kirby), Marie-Cecile de l’Oradore (Claudia Gerini), Audric Baillard (John Hurt) and Will (Sebastian Stan) by looking to the past – these modern day characters defined by the levels of reincarnation dating back to the 13th century.
Labyrinth is an interesting challenge to Nietzsche, whose philosophy suggests the importance of living for the moment. Labyrinth at its heart may be an anti-Nietzsche tale, asserting the importance of our past on our individual and communal identities for both the present and the future. Neither past, present or future are singularly important; each are intertwined.
This dependence on the past narrative arc is a dangerous choice, and a bold one, though it remains true to the idea at the heart of Labyrinth. Writer Adrian Hodges and director Christopher Smith’s choice pays off, firmly intertwining the two time periods, whilst predominantly choosing to focus on one and use the other as a supporting arch to aid the final denouement.
The emotional heart is discovered by the way in which despite the continuation of life through reincarnation, the parts in the story and individual fortunes vary, and events are re-imagined whilst they bare a resemblance to the past. Despite this success, there is a lingering desire to have seen more screen time for the present day protagonists and antagonists, most notably Marie-Cecile de l’Oradore as the reincarnation of Oriane Congost. Equally there remains a lingering desire to have also seen other characters have more screen time in the present day story, hence complimenting the two periods and swinging backwards and forwards between the characters who tell this story.
Labyrinth is an entertaining yarn, more in the vein of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. As any good story should it includes its fair share of themes encompassing honour, love, loyalty, courage, all of which is infused with the ugliness of life, from betrayal and deception to the idea that “God uses good people whilst evil people use God.”
Never does Labyrinth try to suggest which the greater evil is: religion or man. In 13th century France evil appears in the form of the Christian crusade, only for Oriane Congost alongside the crusaders to become a villainess in her own right. In the present day it is Marie-Cecile de l’Oradore who is presented as the villainess, before one of her henchmen, a Christian attempts to double cross her and once again drags religion into the fray of good versus evil. Or perhaps it does attempt to answer that question. God is a tool used for centuries through our combined histories to do evil: God used as a justification for bloodshed and destruction. If so then Labyrinth is also a story about the propensity for good throughout our combined histories, a never-ending conflict between two opposing forces, life best described as a series of stories reincarnated through protagonists and antagonists.
Read Paul’s interview with Labyrinth star Claudia Gerini here.
Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.