Thomas Tyrrell finds something lacking as he reviews Cursed, Netflix’s new take on Arthurian myth.
As fantasy realms go, Middle Snowdonia makes a pretty decent substitute for Middle Zealand. Catching a glimpse of Tryfan and the Glyders behind our protagonists is a rewarding moment, especially having been denied access to our National Parks for so long. That we’re later told that this realm is suffering a punishing drought is just one of the ways in which the world of Cursed never coheres. But at least it looks the business.
The concept of retelling the Arthurian myths from the perspective of Nimue is attractive—the woman who lives in a lake, hands Arthur Excalibur, and leaves Merlin trapped under a rock after stealing all his secrets, is clearly due a bit of extra development. What we get, however, is unimaginative. As the show begins, Nimue lives in one of those peaceful rural villages that only exist to be massacred by Imperial Stormtroopers—or in this case, Red Paladins, religious zealots with a penchant for crucifying their victims. Historically, this is the one atrocity Christians have been understandably squeamish about, but the show never bothers much about that.
Katherine Langford as Nimue can be surprisingly watchable when the script requires her to be flirty, mysterious or traditionally witchy; unfortunately the angsty grimdark story seems to require a blankly traumatised expression that sucks what little other acting there is right out of the scene. Tasked by her dying mother with carrying the sword Excalibur to Merlin—yes, the one from the stories—Nimue gets assistance from Arthur, the kind of knight who only ever seems to wear a leather jacket. All the freshness that comes from telling this story from a female perspective is thus wasted by thrusting her into a one-size-fits-all Heroes Journey of the kind we’ve seen so many squires and farm boys go through before.
Meanwhile, vaguely familiar Arthurian characters emerge from the woodwork in ‘gotcha’ moments with all the limp drama of the villain reveals in Spectre and Star Trek: Into Darkness. There’s no reason why any of the characters should be impressed by Squirrel’s real name being Percival, but the audience is supposed to treat it as a moment of high drama nonetheless.
At least we have Bill Skarsgård to liven things up as Merlin. He may be playing a Drunken Master stereotype, but he brings some acting to the screen and makes his interpretation feel distinct. His is a Merlin haunted by dark bargains struck in the distant past, fighting to preserve his position and conceal the loss of his magic even as he tries to lose himself in the bottom of a wine barrel. Full credit to him for the heroic lengths he goes to in trying to convince us that the muddled world-building of Cursed makes any kind of sense.
This is less a revisionist take on the Arthurian mythos than a series of labels slapped onto a generic fantasy narrative to give it a bit of out-of-copyright brand recognition. It doesn’t help that the story can’t decide whether it’s a Dark Age fantasy, set in that 500 to 600 AD historical blackspot when it’s just possible for King Arthur to exist, or an Alternative World that runs by different rules. On the Alternate World side we get some engagingly colour-blind casting as well as a series of overfamiliar fantasy tropes, but we also get people bellowing out anachronistic and baffling things about the Holy Roman Emperor or the Vikings, neither of which work in an Arthurian setting. It’s also annoying that it doesn’t bother at all with the Celtic origin of the myths, giving its Welsh locations generic Anglo-Saxon fantasy names.
There are better fantasy offerings on Netflix: Kingdom, for example, a zombie historical drama that easily outclasses its ‘Game of Thrones in Korea’ pitch; or Chronicles of Shannara, which leans into its schlocky epic fantasy roots for a fun campy show that greatly outdoes its Tolkien-by-numbers source text. For all that the heroine of Cursed is a Fey, the show takes itself too seriously to be salvaged by any such moments of campy fun, making it a handsome but fundamentally hollow experience.
Cursed is available to watch on Netflix UK.
Thomas Tyrrell is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.