Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel
The Arthurian legend has been seen in films and on television for over one hundred years. Whether it is Disney’s animated The Sword in the Stone (1963), the screen adaptation of Camelot (1967), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), or the gritty but effective Excalibur (1981), the tale and the characters have endured. King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, the wizard Merlin and the Knights of the Round table — all are drawn from Sir Thomas Mallory’s epic fifteenth century Le Morte d’Arthur. The stories have been told and retold, celebrated and spoofed over centuries.
Netflix’s most recent offering is the ten-part series Cursed. Based on the 2019 novel by Thomas Wheeler and illustrated by Frank Miller, this is a reenvisioning of the legend told through Nimue, who would become the Lady of the Lake, the sorceress who is often associated with giving Arthur the sword Excalibur and later enchanting Merlin. In many ways, Cursed nods most towards The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s modern reinterpretation that emphasizes the powerful women behind Camelot.
The first episode opens with a cluttered exposition, assaulting the viewer with the series’ lore. An amazing amount of information and jargon are stuffed into fifteen minutes.
Nimue (Katherine Langford) is a member of the Sky People, one of the various Fey (fairy) tribes. She has gifts that are associated with witchcraft so is an outcast even among her own people. Her mother, Lenore (strong and kind as played by Catherine Walker), a healer and a pillar of strength in the tribe, tells her to never to be embarrassed of what she is.
Nimue is unsure of the source of her powers and they seem to manifest when she is upset or feeling a strong emotion — sort of a medieval Carrie White. That is, until she whimsically wins a dice game about twenty minutes later. (So much for consistency.) Mostly, they present as tree roots coming to life and graphically attack her persecutors. In a ritual offering by the community Elders, Nimue is chosen by the Hidden as the Summoner. This displeases the Elders and she decides to leave the community.
Along with her rustic sidekick, Pym (mostly comic relief as played by Lily Newmark), she flees to a port town, only to discover that the ship she sought left the day before. Here she meets Arthur, the man-who-will-be-king, (Devon Terrell) in the standard market day scene. They do end up have a sexy, fireside duel. Actual engagement doesn’t occur for another eight episodes.
The first part ends with Nimue in a sword battle against some badly CGI-ed wolves. This brands her the Wolf Blood Witch.
The sword is at the heart of the narrative, representing both honor and corruption. It goes by the name of the Devil’s Tooth and the Sword of First Kings and the Sword of Power. Nimue’s mother charged her with getting the sword to Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård) and much of the first half of the series focuses on that quest.
While Cursed is a fantasy realm where both the flora and the fauna are enchanted, it is also a harsh, cruel, and bloody world — with emphasis on the bloody. It is not so much gallons of spilled blood but oceans. The number of slashings, knifings, and beheadings per episode is in the dozens. There is much more sword than sorcery in Cursed, and it is not for the squeamish.
Most interesting is the unrest in the world. There is drought and plague and it is being blamed on King Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto) and the various Fey enclaves. Father Carden (Peter Mullan) and the Red Paladins are a religious order under the guidance of Rome; they are shown destroying the Fey villages and mutilating its denizens. There is the mix of zealot fanaticism and sadism in the Paladins as they destroy everything in their paths, burning and hacking their way in the name of right. They also torture their prisoners and burn them alive on crosses.
The tone is a strange blend of the traditional “Once upon a time …” with ABC’s Once Upon a Time. The dialogue is an odd mixture of modern and “oldey-timey,” with a scattering of milady’s but stopping short of “prithee” and “forsooth.” There is one stray “hedge-born naïf.”
The cast is, for the most part, very good. Langford makes Nimue strong and dimensional and carries the series well with charmingly honest Terrell an ideal match. Skarsgård’s Merlin is wily and dissipated, playing him with the right touch of ambivalence. Daniel Sharman’s Weeping Monk, the Paladin’s secret weapon, is appropriately menacing. Matt Stokoe’s Green Knight/Sir Gawain is proud but decent with a particularly strong moment where he relates the death of his brother. Aremsto’s spoiled king as a good match for Polly Walker’s cold-blooded Queen Regent mother. Mullan clearly understands the vicious, self-righteous monk. Shalom Brune-Franklin as Arthur’s sister Igraine/Morgana is a voice of reason until she isn’t.
Emily Coates is a bit more than psychotic as the rebel nun, Sister Iris — watching her walk away from the burning convent is chilling. Peter Guinness gives a richness to Sir Ector, Arthur’s uncle, who is more than reluctantly forced into the middle of the political mire.
There are dozens of characters who come and go (many with hatchets and swords in their chests; some missing hands). The villains tend to be pure evil which undermines the texture of the world. There are also Vikings and mercenaries and a variety of Fey to keep track of.
One nice touch is the animated illustrations that join the scenes. These clearly reference the Frank Miller illustrations from the book but they give a certain tone and flow that is aesthetically very elegant.
The problem with the series is the lack of consistency in the storytelling. The occasional stabs at humor don’t land well. While the first six episodes are dense with plot and background, they are well-paced. However, by episode seven, it all becomes predictable, and there is a sense of treading water (or blood) until the final episode and the great battle. By this time, the viewer is battle-fatigued and the fact that so much is left unresolved is both frustrating and predictable.
There is a moment in the penultimate scene that is a wonderful reveal which is directly related to the Arthurian legend and what is to come. And that is the problem. So much of the latter episodes are setting up for a second season. Cursed is nine hours of playing time that could have been cut in half. It is a sprawling epic that doesn’t fully reach its potential or fulfill its promise. You could just wait for the second season. Or not.
Rated R, Cursed is now streaming on Netflix.