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Katherine Langford tries to anchor uneven YA Netflix fantasy ‘Cursed’

Katherine Langford tries to anchor uneven YA Netflix fantasy ‘Cursed’

Katherine Langford tries to anchor uneven YA Netflix fantasy ‘Cursed’
July 24
17:00 2020

¨Where to begin? With fire or water?”

Another year, another twist on Arthurian myth. Dating back millennia, the original mythology has been re-adapted, re-worked and satirized with dozens of reinterpretations and reboots, now including Netflix’s “Cursed.”

This time, Katherine Langford inhabits the role of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, famous for usually beseeching Arthur’s Excalibur when he’s not pulling it from a stone, now at the center of the story. Instead of Excalibur, she wields the Devil’s Tooth/Sword of Power. And instead of a quest for the Holy Grail, Nimue and her allies are fighting the Holy Roman Empire itself, who is engaging in genocide against the mystical Fey.

So, it’s definitely a little different.

Adapted from Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller’s 2018 young adult fantasy novel of the same name, Netflix’s “Cursed” attempts to reframe the story from a more feminist point of view as Nimue and allies navigate religious extremism, court politics and her own coming-of-age across a dangerous medieval landscape. With pretty heavy influence from “Game of Thrones,” much like every fantasy show of the past decade, this promises to be a more divergent take on the source material.

Langford is the show’s anchor — which makes sense considering how she made the first season of “13 Reasons Why” watchable — as strong-willed sorceress Nimue, a young woman dealing with the grief of not only having grown up an outcast but losing her village and mother to the genocidal Red Paladins. Finding her own confidence in her abilities and destiny, her journey from on-the-run outcast to chosen leader grounds the show emotionally, and she kept me invested in her story.

The writers fumble her characterization in the second half, however, as a confident young woman becomes confused and impulsive for reasons that aren’t quite clear — the show clearly suggests the sword is corrupting her, but her arc becomes inconsistent and I felt the show was skipping over potential stepping stones in her journey. As a result, Langford’s performance suffers, as even the show can’t seem to quite figure out what to do with her.

Still, the supporting cast mostly helps carry the burden, with the standout being Gustaf Skarsgård as a drunk, bohemian Merlin. He’s quite entertaining and Skarsgård balances his cynical oafnesses with real competent trickery and seriousness, grounding him as an ostensibly silly character against the more grim world.

Also, the sequence revealing how he created the Sword of Power is hardcore.

The rest of the cast is fine, with Devon Terrell as the first Black man to play Arthur, his incarnation being a rogue mercenary with aspirations of knighthood. Despite some hiccups early on with the character, he’s charming and does his best with the material he’s given, solidifying into a stronger character overtime.  Shalom Brune-Franklin actually gets a pretty interesting subplot as Sister Igraine/Morgana, but the final episode seems to skip over showing the audience a major development in her character. Lily Newmark gets a pretty darkly comedic storyline as Nimue’s friend, Pym, who absconds with a group of Vikings.

Sadly, the antagonists are mostly undercooked, aside from maybe Father Carden (Peter Mullan), but that’s it. The main physical threat is the Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman) but he’s underdeveloped, not helped by a questionable twist regarding him at the very end of the season.

As for the action, it seesaws between competent and messy. Langford had to train hard for the role and it definitely shows when she’s front and center, cutting through genocidal monks as realistically as an untrained combatant empowered by a mystical sword would. Arthur also gets some good scenes, along with Matt Stokoe’s Gawain. The bigger battles, however, fall victim to frenzied editing and not being able to really sell some of the spectacles, with the budget’s shortcomings becoming apparent.

From a visual standpoint, the creators get a lot of mileage from the English landscape — sunlight shimmers through the treetops, the rivers and streams glisten and there are some absolutely lovely backdrops against the mountains and flat countryside. One standout from the opening episodes has Merlin going down a desolate road lined with burned corpses hung on crucifixes, ashes softly drifting from the simmering remains. Pretty striking imagery. The special effects are another feather in the series’ cap, with a good mixture of digital and physical gore and computer-generated magic that, while somewhat obvious, doesn’t distract and compliments the art direction.

Tone is something else the series struggles with, trying to juggle “Game of Thrones” style politicking with “Witcher” levels of grotesque violence with YA coming-of-age and romance tropes, a combination that never quite gels. Nimue and friends will be taking in the whimsy and wonder of the world, then it’ll cut to a pile of massacred fantasy creatures.

There also seems to be an identity crisis in the second half, with writers abruptly tossing out characters rising in importance, suddenly bringing in others who’d been out of the spotlight and a storyline involving a creepy nun that just… wasn’t quite working. There’s a strong undercurrent the show-runners knew how they wanted the first season to end, but not how to get there. Some storylines, regarding Igraine/Morgana and Pym could’ve used more focus, but are shoved aside in favor of unnecessary fat.

Then there’s the questionable-at-best decision to kill one of the only two gay characters in the show, which falls into the trap of “bury your gays” storytelling. It’s one thing when you kill off a gay character in a diverse show, it’s another when you kill off half of your LGBTQ+ representation.

Despite the promises of a radical reinvention of classic myths, “Cursed” fails to truly stand against other shows, including Netflix’s own “The Witcher.” While Langford carries the visually gorgeous show, along with Terrell and Skarsgård, a lack of any concrete identity or character development drown the show, and any future seasons will need tighter storytelling and more to set itself apart. 

Final rating: 2.5/5

Featured Illustration: Miranda Thomas

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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