Based on Tom Wheeler & Frank Miller’s New York Times bestselling book, Netflix’s latest slice of fantasy action comes in the form of Cursed, a re-imagining of the classic Arthurian legend. Rather than focusing primarily on the origins of the King, which has certainly been well-trod, the series shifts to a (long overdue) female perspective – placing Nimue, aka The Lady of the Lake, at the centre of the tale. With a fascinating new feminist concept hooking this female fantasy lover in, I couldn’t help but come away somewhat disappointed, with the series coming across as much more Merlin than Game of Thrones.
Before Arthur the King, the Sword of Power chose a Queen. Starring Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why, Knives Out) as the outcast magically gifted heroine Nimue, Cursed follows her quest to deliver the ancient sword to wizard Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård) in order to bring peace to the realm. Teaming up with fellow Fey warriors and Arthur (Sebastian Armesto), a young mercenary, they attempt to stop the evil Red Paladins and complicit King Uther (Sebastian Armesto) waging all out war and wiping out all supernatural and fairy folk.
Following the lukewarm response to Guy Richie’s recent take on King Arthur, putting a woman at the epicenter of a prequel to the legendary saga was a smart move. The women in Arthur’s life are often merely portrayed as side characters in this male-dominated genre, so for Nimue to lead an uprising and wield Excalibur is an empowering move. Yes this is a female-led fantasy, with Arthur in a supporting role, and it’s all the better for it as Wheeler cleverly incorporates the core characters throughout the series in intriguing ways.
There are however a number of liberties taken regarding the source material, with some surprising plot twists landing better than others, (while some reveals are just plain haphazard). But with similar themes and medieval settings, it’s hard not to compare it to big budget fantasy shows such as Witcher, Games of Thrones and Vikings, and it’s here where some of the problems lie. Effects aside, there’s just far too many convoluted subplots taking place at once; it’s as if the writers couldn’t really decide on the main focus of the show. Invading Viking clans turn up out of the blue, along with Kings quarrelling over politics, Christian zealots waging a religious war against Fey folk and a random evil nun is thrown in for good measure – it’s all just a bit much. (Thankfully there’s isn’t any Witcher-esque multiple timelines!)
Katherine Langford is compelling as the lead, excellently playing an uncertain young woman who’s grappling with the lure of her magical powers whilst trying to find her place in the World. Her arc is admirable, rising from pariah to rebel Queen following a real tragedy. But with such a stuffed ensemble cast, the character isn’t quite given enough to do as opposed to Skarsgård’s alcoholic antihero Merlin and Terrell’s rogueish Arthur. Unfortunately the romance between Nimue and Arthur feels pretty forced, with Langford shining best alongside series standouts Lily Newmark (Sex Education) as the loveable Pym and Billy Jenkins’ (Humans) scrappy orphan Squirrel. Mysteriously teased throughout but underwhelmingly explored, there was a real missed opportunity with Daniel Sharman’s Weeping Monk, who I hope will get a bigger role if there’s a second series.
The inconsistencies unfortunately continue throughout the production, particularly in the costume and set departments; there’s a number of characters creatively brought to life, but a handful stand out for the wrong reasons, (I’m looking at you bird lady.) The series is wonderfully shot in a number of outstanding English locations, but some of the ‘ye olde’ village sets unfortunately look rather low budget. The fight choreography and battle sequences are on the whole fine, but no where near Vikings and Game of Thrones level, and the visual effects vary from typical Miller-esque ultra violent blood splatters to plain dire, particularly when it comes to creatures.
Featuring a lot of promise but failing in the execution tonally, Cursed is unfortunately a bit of a missed opportunity to breathe new life into the Arthurian legend. I do however admire the endearing scrappiness of the core characters, with a number of great performances featured. As the writers have undoubtedly set up a second season, I’d hope to see a more streamlined series with a greater focus on Nimue’s fate (and more Pym please!)