Frontlist | Cursed, Netflix review: yet another fantasy that doesn’t live up to Game of Thrones
Ever since HBO’s Westeros saga limped over the finish line last spring, a slew of new fantasy dramas have been optimistically hailed as “the next Game of Thrones”. Many are still in production (such as Amazon’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time), presumably putting the finishing touches to their CGI dragons, but we’ve already had His Dark Materials, See and The Witcher. And none have come close to replicating the cultural cut-through of GoT.
The latest attempt is Cursed (Netflix) – the streaming service’s heavily hyped summer launch, based on the bestselling graphic novel by screenwriter Tom Wheeler and comic book veteran Frank Miller. It’s an ambitious 10-part reimagining of the Arthurian legend, full of magic, folklore and blood-spattered battles. Is it the next GoT? Sadly not but it’s a perfectly serviceable slice of escapism while we wait for the next contender.
The sprawling story is told through the eyes of Nimue (Katherine Langford, seconded from Netflix stablemate 13 Reasons Why), a young woman with mysterious gifts who is destined to become the powerful-but-tragic Lady of the Lake.
When her priestess mother Lenore (Catherine Walker) makes a dying wish, Nimue (pronounced “Nim-way”) sets out on a quest to deliver an ancient sword to Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård) – “you know, the wizard from the stories”. Centuries old yet seemingly ageless, he’s now a disgraced drunkard who has lost his powers at the bottom of a wine bottle. Temporarily, at least.
Nimue soon finds a sidekick-cum-love interest in dashing mercenary Arthur (Devon Terrell) and becomes a rabble-rousing symbol of resistance for the magical Fae people against the crusading Red Paladins and their complicit king Uther Pendragon (slippery Sebastian Armesto).
After using her powerful blade to decimate a pack of lupine predators, fugitive Nimue becomes known as “The Wolf-Blood Witch”, an initially reluctant leader of the persecuted forest folk. As her mother told her: “You are not some fragile maid. You are a warrior.”
Craggy stalwart Peter Mullan adds another baddie to his extensive repertoire in the shape of Paladin leader Father Carden – a growling, genocidal zealot on a mission to exterminate all supernatural beings in the name of religion. With his red robes and white beard, Mullan resembles a sort of bad Santa. You’d better not end up on his naughty list.
Cleverly, Cursed puts a fresh, feminist spin on the familiar quasi-historical tales of gallant knights and round tables. Not only is the famous sword wielded by Nimue rather than Arthur but she’s supported by a girl-powered posse of strong female characters.
Rising star Shalom Brune-Franklin (Our Girl) shines as Sister Igraine, a courageous nun with secrets of her own. Emily Coates creeps around corridors as sinister orphan Sister Iris, while Polly Walker chomps the scenery as the scheming Queen Mother, the power behind spineless Uther’s throne – even though she’s imprisoned high in a castle tower, “madwoman in the attic”-style.
Woke-sceptics will have a field day, working themselves up into a froth about the diverse cast but it works well, especially in a drama with so many invading clans and competing factions. Besides, this is fantasy drama, not historical documentary.
Game of Thrones was heavily criticised for having so few black characters, so Cursed offers a welcome corrective. There’s even a pair of lesbian nuns, just to get traditionalists clutching their pearls in outrage. It also puts some smart plot twists on the fertile source material. No spoilers but several characters are later unmasked as familiar Arthurian figures.
Netflix has enjoyed success with genre series aimed at a young adult audience (Stranger Things, Sex Education, Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why). Cursed could well prove another teen hit. It’s packaged as an angst-ridden coming-of-age story whose themes are familiar to 21st-century audiences: man-made threats to the natural world, religious terror and especially racism (see the burning crosses and talk of “purebloods”). These messages can be clumsily delivered but at least lend it the sheen of contemporary relevance.
A pitfall with such epic dramas is that the narrative frequently disappears up its own rabbit-hole and the ensemble cast becomes confusing. So it proves here, with plotting that’s literally away with the fairies.
In the woodland alone, there are Sky Folk, the Snake Clan, Fauns, Tusks, Moonwings and the subterranean Lepers. Up in the human world are Vikings, Druids, rebel raiders, smugglers, monks, nuns, spies and soldiers. Somewhere in between lie the Shadow Lords, the Hidden, the whispering Widow and the Spider Goddess (arachnophobes beware these scenes). Clear as medieval mud? By mid-series, when a raft of new arrivals are suddenly introduced, you’ll be pressing pause to work out who’s who. The allegiance-forming and double-crossing become nigh-on impossible to follow.
Whereas Game of Thrones was elevated by the presence of heavyweight Shakespearean thesps, the international cast of Cursed feels lightweight by comparison. Peter Mullan gets the chewiest speeches, partly because he can deliver them most convincingly.
Luckily, Katherine Langford is excellent. Her posterior-kicking heroine Nimue is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Xena: Warrior Princess. When she deploys her mystic abilities, her face becomes covered in a sort of veiny green ivy, while the earth and her enemies tremble. Her romance with Arthur starts off as a sweet forbidden flirtation but by the end, they’re having slo-mo sex and singing to each other in a cringe-inducing manner.
The dialogue’s tendency towards the portentous means Cursed too often comes over as po-faced. Much-needed comic relief is provided by Lily Newmark as Nimue’s lippy best friend Pym and plucky young tearaway Squirrel (Billy Jenkins, last seen as the schoolboy Prince Charles in The Crown).
Even if the script is disappointingly flat, at least Frank Miller’s graphic flair and eye for a painterly frame mean Cursed is visually striking. Thrill-wise, it has Thrones-like levels of horseback combat, sword fights, flying arrows and castle sieges. Ninja assassin The Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman) lends balletic kung-fu style to action scenes. There’s a three-headed baby, blood rain and a dodgy CGI bear. There are cameos from Boudicca and the Pope. At least once per episode, someone gets their head or hands cut off, just to keep gore fans and metalwork geeks interested.
Cursed will entertain teenagers and intrigue fantasy enthusiasts, but isn’t quite high-calibre enough to convince casual viewers. It’s smart but not smart enough. If it gets a second series – as the cliffhanger finale suggests it will – it needs a more credible cast and a less workmanlike script. The pen, after all, is mightier than the sword.