Following the release of Dan Brown's wildly popular airport novel "The Da Vinci Code", there was a surge in popularity for the "theological conspiracy thriller" that led to, among others, the emergence of Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, which touches on related themes of religious conflict and the enduring hunt for the Holy Grail amid the Cathar Crusade in 1200s France. Seven years after the book's release, amid The Tudors' fill-in-the-gap take on history and Merlin's reimagining of Arthurian lore, a joint production between Germany and South America brought Mosse's story to the small screen in a two-part miniseries that, until recently on The CW, hadn't graced American airwaves. After trudging through the three-hour span of Christopher Smith's adaptation, it's easy to understand why Labyrinth didn't really catch on: agonizingly protracted and relentlessly grim, this unpleasant take on the parallel time-jumping mystery belies the intriguing historical truths at the foundation of this dour maze.
Director Smith's previous experience with shifting perspectives (Triangle) and tweaked outlooks on history (Black Death) makes him a good fit for Mosse's story. Yet, as volunteer digger Alice Tanner (Vanessa Kirby) stumbles into a mythical cave at an archaeological site, discovers relics among dead bodies, and experiences supernatural visions of Carcassonne in 1200s France, Labyrinth surprisingly lacks the liveliness and allure of those productions. Sluggishly, the point-of-view flips to Alice's ancestor in the past, Alais (Jessica Brown Findlay), in the region populated with Cathar believers, whose fears of the Pope violently purging their "heretical" stronghold will soon become a reality. Carcassonne's narrative switches between the impending invasion and the unsteady relationship between Alais and her council-member husband (Emun Elliott), who's involved in an affair with her devious sister, Oriane (Katie McGrath). Soon, Alais learns of a secret kept by her father about how the Cathars safeguarded the Holy Grail, tying into Alice's visions within modern-day Carcassonne and the powerful people, namely the mysterious antique dealer Marie-Cecile de l'Oradore, hunting the relic.
The mysticism behind Alice's glimpses into the past might translate into an enjoyable touch of whimsy for some, but the way her "deja vu" gradually guides this heroine along her journey becomes both tedious and full of holes. Wherever Alice might overlook a clue in her investigation, that parallel glimpse into the past is right there to fill in just enough of the gap to keep her moving ... yet not enough to jump ahead several steps to prevent some of the danger created by religious fanatics hot on her tracks. Perhaps it'd be easier to concede to this rigid unspooling of the modern-era mystery if our sleuth were a dynamic protagonist, but Vanessa Kirby can't really hold that kind of energy, serving as a hollow, meek substitute for a Robert Langdon type of character whose only flickers of depth come from obtuse decision-making and reiteration of her recent breakup. Alice's perplexed interaction with discovering the labyrinth's secrets never gets any deeper than faint curiosity into what she'll unearth next, sprinkled with deer-in-headlights wonderment at the ghosts of her ancestor.
Labyrinth's much more stimulating side -- at least, on a contextual level -- comes in the visions of medieval Carcassonne, and how the Cathars were hunted down for their beliefs by Pope Innocent III's forces. It's also here, though, where the starkness of Christopher Smith's direction really takes hold and squeezes every drop of possible malice out of the ham-fisted script, where the overbearing villainy of both the Crusaders and of Alais' sister goes beyond the call of duty. Granted, that's part and parcel with the severity of the Albigensian Crusade, where the performances from Tony Curran and, especially, John Lynch as Simon de Montfort are fittingly detestable; their cruelty, boorishness, and conniving tactics elicit the desired responses. Yet, Smith's direction offers very little room to breathe around the embattled tragedy that engulfs Alais and her hold on the Cathar's secrets, only really broken up by the scheming of her sister, Oriane. She's been granted superficial wickedness by Katie McGrath that's only a stone's throw from her take on Morgana, coupled with this character's profoundly spiteful lineage issues.
If there's a ray of light here, it comes in the second part's melancholy junction of the modern-era race for the Grail with the struggles Alais undergoes to preserve the secret of its whereabouts, navigated with both gullibility and sympathetic strength by Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay. Even then, in tandem with her descendant's unconvincing romance with Sebastian Stan's paper-thin Will and a requisite dump of expert info from an underused John Hurt, the intriguing elements comprising the historical backbone to Alais' story still get bogged down with persistently clunky dialogue and a spiritless uptick in anticipation. It doesn't help that the secret at the end of this Labyrinth can't really justify its overdrawn bends and turns, either, nonsensically winding towards a stale purpose-driven reveal following centuries of bloodshed over the relic. Despite handsome production values and a capable premise, the result is an unsatisfying snoozer of a miniseries whose touches of mysticism and reputable history really struggle to illuminate the way to the end of its overlong tunnel.
Video and Audio:
Despite an HD download option being available at several online venues, physical media folks will be stuck with Lionsgate's 1.78:1-framed, widescreen-enhanced DVD transfer ... and they shouldn't be left dissatisfied. The crisp, detailed digital photography captures both the straightforward appeal of modern-day locales and the stony, grimy aesthetic of medieval Carcassonne. Complex textures in the rock-strewn landscape and the intricate art-department work -- medieval gowns, tunics and chainmail, aged paper and leatherbound books -- offer clear, defined details, while the vibrancy of the film's modernistic palette and its subtle shifts in warmth due to the shifting time periods are appealingly stable. Contrast is surprisingly stable as well, showcasing deep black levels that only move in on enclosed details once or twice. Some digital noise and slight smoothness crop up, along with some faint noise in complexly-lit sequences, but it's a very satisfying and vibrant substitute for an HD offering.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track offers a firm and buoyant presentation, full of subtle-yet-engaging effects, rich music, and satisfying verbal clarity. Almost all of the activity comes from the front end of the surround stage, where only some slight musical expansions and outdoor atmospheric effects, such as trees rustling and rainfall, traveling to the back for an immersive effect. The separation at the front channels is fairly potent and satisfying, with the center-channel speaker bearing the brunt of effects -- unlacing a journal, scribbling on paper, clanking blades and billowing fire -- as they cautiously travel to the sides, increasing in fullness as they do so. Dialogue is moderately clear, a little muffled for deeper voices but always discernible, while the commanding score sustains its vigorous presence wherever it can. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
The only extra included is a nearly half-hour Making of Labyrinth (27:47, 16x9) featurette, cobbling together interviews with author Kate Mosse, director Christopher Smith, producer Ridley Scott, and other producers and cast members as they chronicle the process of properly adapting the book. It's a lively and appreciative piece that covers making this a "new" take on Mosse's novel, the feeling of working within and around Carcassonne, and the extensive (and, admittedly, quite attractive) costume and set design that went into the production.
Don't expect Labyrinth to have anything to do with either the Jim Henson production or the lore of the minotaur, as you'll be in for a surprise at the austerity and violence at the heart of this story of a religious conspiracy that's tied to the Albigensian Crusade. Alas, those who go into this miniseries adaptation of Kate Mosse's novel knowing what to expect are likely to find it just as disagreeable. What could've been an absorbing fusion of contemporary mystery and mystical flashbacks to a harrowing point in history gets burdened by lethargic pacing, an unrelenting grim tone due to overdone villainy, and one-dimensional characters swept up in the underlying conspiracy. Topped off with a rather bland reveal at the end of the escapade, and it's a miniseries event that's best Skipped ... though some might want to give it a look for Jessica Brown Findlay's performance, the history coursing through the story, and the production design.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site