‘Cursed’ Reimagines the Arthurian Legends as a Visually Stunning and Gritty Ride
There is revisionist history and then there is revisionist fantasy. “Cursed” is an example of the latter in which the Arthurian myths are reimagined as a hot-blooded adventure that is part western, part fairy tale. Of Netflix’s new crop of summer shows this is certainly the most visually stunning. Even when the plot gets too complicated or standard for its own good, every frame feels like lush art from another era. It goes for everything from allegory to pop feminism, not always successfully, but rarely dull in its style.
The series’ origin is a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler. Miller is famous primarily for his work as a graphic novelist, producing material that tends to be dark and despairing like “Sin City” and “300.” In his tales violence is a fact of life. Such is the world of “Cursed” where we meet Nimue (Katherine Langford), a young woman scorned as a witch who leaves her village in search of the sea, where a ship can take her to a faraway desert land. The medieval world Nimue wanders is being torn apart by warring sides in a battle between what seems to be Christianity and magic. Fanatics known as the Red Paladin pillage and burn villages, execute magical beings and are soon on the hunt for Nimue after she slays a few of their men. During one such raid Nimue’s mother hands her an intricately-designed sword that holds a special power. Nimue is to find a man named Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård) and hand him the weapon. As you can already guess by the name, this is indeed the legendary wizard Merlin, who we find as an angry, drunken denizen of the court of the selfish King Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto). Uther has his own connection to the Red Paladin even as he demands Merlin perform magic, like making it rain. But the wizard has lost his touch it seems, he needs the sword. In her quest to find Merlin, Nimue meanwhile comes across a handsome mercenary posing as a troubadour, Arthur (Devon Terrell), who tags along with his own dreams of achieving greatness.
“Cursed” joins “The Witcher” as another big-budget streaming option attempting to fill the fantasy void left by last year’s departure of HBO’s groundbreaking “Game of Thrones.” We have yet to see anyone reach that show’s unique balance of literary quality meets popcorn entertainment. “Cursed” stands out for its visual flare and progressive casting choices. Katherine Langford, who defined teen angst and sorrow in “Thirteen Reasons Why,” transforms into a strong action lead. She has the look and attitude to prove carrying a swords and spells epic is not a man’s game anymore on television. Devon Terrell is a perfect choice to be Arthur. His version is less myth and more of a suave adventurer. His is a kind of Han Solo take on the character. Terrell brings some of the same charm from his role as Barack Obama in the limited series “Barry.” These actors celebrate a new diversity in fantasy shows that was also lacking even in “Game of Thrones.” “Cursed” will give a whole new generation of viewers discovering these classic names more diverse faces for them including characters like Lady Marion (Jaye Griffiths).
The basic storyline is a jumble of various fantasy angles and catch phrases. You almost need an official guidebook to keep track of it all. The central plot involves the Red Paladin hunting down Nimue, along with flashbacks to Nimue’s formation as someone with special gifts. Arthur in this version of the story is more of a side character, even as his own journey takes on a greater role near the end. We learn he was left parentless early on and was raised by an uncle who is now a lord who disowns him for his outlaw ways. Fear not Arthurian fans who grew up watching films like “Excalibur” and “The Sword in the Stone,” the young would-be king engages in tournaments, steals Nimue’s sword to try and prove himself and slices and dices ruffians in taverns. A much more intriguing character, as he tends to be in every Camelot yarn, is Merlin. Gustaf Skarsgård is simply the best actor to inhabit the role since Sam Neil’s turn in the far superior 1998 TV miniseries “Merlin.” Skarsgård has the face and tone perfect for a Frank Miller Merlin, who is rebooted as a wine-chugging magician who would look at home in a biker gang or punk band. He lives in a grungy tower in Uther’s castle, stands outside blasted by rain while cursing his fate but once he has the sword in his hand lets loose on Red Paladin goons on a rocky bridge in a season finale that surpasses every other episode. When we discover his true relation to Nimue he is also allowed a more human and vulnerable side that some of the other characters lack, although Nimue does get a pleasant romance with Arthur that doesn’t feel forced.
It is the aesthetic in the end that truly defines “Cursed.” This is a series with a look worthy of a Frank Frazetta painting. At its least it looks like a deck of Magic cards come to life. When the plot gets convoluted we can still drink in the amazing sights like Merlin on a walkway outside of a storm-drenched castle while calling down literal blood rain, or Nimue as a child fighting off a demon bear. Forests look like hallucinatory dreamscapes, and by the season finale when armadas of Vikings get involved in the action there are grand battle scenes by the sea worthy of Ridley Scott. The Inquisition gets referenced in gothic scenes where priests initiate a new warrior with a gold-plated mask to continue the work of hunting down the magical mongrels they hate so much. Swords crackle with lightning atop and heroes stand on great rocks while doing battle. Fans of this genre will get their fix with visuals alone.
What “Cursed” will benefit from in a second season is a cleaner roster where too many plot threads don’t crash into each other. Many characters and agendas are introduced in this first round and keeping track becomes a chore. But as pure, visual entertainment it has memorable moments and great faces. There is magic there waiting to be summoned forth.
“Cursed” season one begins streaming July 17 on Netflix.