GORE IN THE STORE
Starring Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, Gustaf Skarsgard, Daniel Sharman, Sebastian Armesto, Peter Mullan.
Fantasy, US, Certificate 15.
Streaming now on Netflix.
It's time for Arthurian legend's soggiest icon, the Lady in the Lake, to get the unnecessarily gritty prequel treatment in Netflix's new 10-part fantasy drama series CURSED, based on the novel by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler.
We join future Lady in the Lake, Nimue (Katherine Langford), pre-lake as a young woman ostracised from her community for being a witch. After a magical sword comes into her possession, she embarks on a dangerous quest during which she meets legendary figures such as handsome rogue Arthur (Devon Terrell) and drunken wizard Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard). Others occasionally pop-up, mention their name dramatically and pause so audiences can go 'ooh that's a name's familiar.
We know it's a mediaeval fantasy world because phrases such as 'oh Gods' are uttered, and the scenery is dotted with scruffy extras with exaggerated regional accents. Religious zealots are terrorising the country, the Red Paladins, led by the never not menacing Peter Mullan as Father Carden. They are persecuting the Fey, a community of magical beings whose otherness seems to mainly consist of having little horns or being a bit scaly. With her newfound power Nimue could become a vital figurehead to help the Fey escape their oppression, but is she a match for the terrible powers of the Paladins?
Moody Arthurian reboots have fared poorly cinematically in the past decades with both 2004's KING ARTHUR and 2017's KING ARTHUR LEGEND OF THE SWORD under-performing critically and financially. However, it has worked better on TV, treated with a lighter touch, as proven by BBC's rating hit MERLIN which ended in 2012.
Glimpsing at the promotional materials, I assumed CURSED was aimed towards a similar MERLIN-esque family demographic but was shocked by how gory and violent it is. It's nowhere near as graphic as GAME OF THRONES, and the sexual content and fruity language is minimal, but its 15 certification is well earned. This becomes an issue as it feels too sanitised for adult audiences accustomed to GOT style fantasy but then is too adult to be suitable for families and younger teenagers.
Another significant issue is that it lacks an individual identity. As mentioned, Arthurian legends on-screen aren't unique and CURSED doesn't offer anything radically different. It's tonally and visually similar to Netflix's other recent fantasy offering, THE WITCHER, and the battle sequences could easily be mistaken for slightly neutered GOT out takes.
It also shamelessly indulges in genre clichés. One that's particular tone-deaf in 2020 is the much-maligned trend of only allowing gay characters in mainstream media tragic romances. It initially appeared progressive by introducing a main character in a loving same-sex relationship but then instantly undid this by killing their lover almost immediately afterwards.
The leads are fine though unremarkable, Arthur and Nimue have some chemistry but are not nearly charismatic or well written enough to leave a lasting impression. The best actor, unsurprisingly, is Peter Mullan, who gets a fantastically sinister introduction and is consistently menacing.
I was particularly frustrated with the performance of Sebastian Armesto as Uther. He seemed to be verging on fun manic camp, like Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham, but ultimately restrains himself meaning his performance ends up as bad rather than 'good-bad'.
One positive of the show is that it handles the few horror sequences well. Spiders crawl across eyeballs, hands are lopped off, ghostly apparitions apparate, and Nimue controls roots and branches to attack enemies EVIL DEAD style. One scene of a root being removed from a victim is memorably wince-inducing.
Overall, CURSED is watchable but trite. If you like this sort of thing and enjoyed THE WITCHER, then you'll be passably entertained. However, if you want a genuinely original and compelling Netflix fantasy series then watch the excellent, tragically underseen, DARK CRYSTAL AGE OF RESISTANCE instead. If you've already watched that, or have an aversion to puppets, then CURSED is an acceptable option for those in need of a simple fantasy fix. It's mildly entertaining but inessential fluff.
Reviewed by John Upton