Netflix Show ‘Cursed’ is a Promising Re-imagining of the Arthurian Legends

Nimue (Katherine Langford) cloaked in a hessian cape and holding the hilt of the Sword of Power. She is looking suspiciously to her right and is standing in what looks like a castle's keep.

This is a spoiler-free review. If you have not watched the trailer or perused the IMDb page for Cursed, then you will not be informed of which characters appear in the show or who is playing them, with the exception of Katherine Langford’s Nimue and Gustaf Skarsgård’s Merlin the Magician.

The legend of King Arthur, his knights, Merlin, and Camelot has been reinterpreted and retold many times throughout oral history, literature, paintings, plays, films, and now a Netflix series. However, Cursed offers a new perspective, from the point of view of the mysterious Lady of the Lake, Nimue.

Cursed is an original Netflix series based on the illustrated novel of the same name from Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler. The streaming giant was obviously impressed with the concept and green-lit the series before the novel came out— and to an extent, the gamble is a success. 

The story follows young Nimue (Katherine Langford), a fey girl who is destined for greatness and tragedy. Seemingly cursed at a young age, she grows to become a young woman ostracized from her own kind in an era where the fey are few and hunted by religious zealots from Rome, The Red Paladins. After a tragedy, Nimue is given the Sword of Power and instructed to bring the sword to Merlin the Magician, thus kick-starting the adventure that we have all become accustomed to. However, not all is as it seems. 

With the exception of a few low budget special effects to visualise Nimue and Merlin’s powers, the show is handsomely shot. The on-location shooting mixed with a few soundstages and green screens are blended seamlessly to the point that you truly feel transported to these lands. The show does run into a problem I like to call “the same forest by a different name” syndrome, however, there is a tremendous effort to individualise key locations to give a hint of the scale and scope of this epic. That said, one could argue that the series would be far better off animated as it attempts to blend the live-action format with animated sequences that serve as transitions and a nod to the illustrated novel origins.

(L to R) Devon Terrell and Katherine Langford embracing and about to kiss. There is a busy crowd of other mythical looking folk looking on.

The cast aids in maintaining the balance between fantasy and reality with many putting in some notably terrific and grounded performances. The show also has a very strong lead in Katherine Langford, who despite playing an unimpressive character, does carry the show. The ensemble around her is a diverse group of actors, with women being a significant presence. Both the story and the ensemble emphasise the strength of the women in this iteration, and how great or grave their impact is on the history that is about to be made. There are some notable choices with the racial diversity, and all that really needs to be said about that is that the actors need new hairstylists. Otherwise, everyone in the ensemble is exceptional. If renewed for a second season, each actor who plays a notable character is set up for some spectacular showcases to illustrate their character’s heroic rise or tragic falls.

Langford is a very capable actress. Her job is to portray Nimue’s emotional ride as she undergoes the typical hero’s journey, one that King Arthur usually takes in his many iterations. Nimue is the wide-eyed hero tasked with an impossible quest one that mirrors that of Frod, and the Sword is her One Ring. And, Nimue is surrounded by her own fellowship all either there for her or for what the sword can do. However, as captivating as Langford is, Nimue is merely a massive plot contrivance that gets the ball rolling on the journeys other characters take. While there is growth and depth given to the character, she is often a blank canvas projected upon by the characters that surround her. If it were not for Langford’s admirable screen presence Nimue would simply feel like she is parroting what others are feeling and expressing.

Despite the rather youthful ensemble, the series is rather brutal as it depicts the bloody war between the Fey and the humans. Even with the youngest character Squirrel (also arguably the best character in the show), Cursed maintains a level of maturity and competence that is not normally the case for shows of this kind. It also dodges the many trappings of having a young cast by steering away from “teen drama”, something other historical fiction or fantasies with youthful ensembles often do. Each character is given time and effort to be a fully realised being. The story is at its strongest when it begins to align certain characters with ideologies that send them onto familiar or new paths. Although where everyone usually is in relation to each other may not be clear, who they are and who they will become is where the real excitement lies.

To get you into the right mindset when watching this series, one must think of similar reinterpretations of history or legends. Think of The CW’s Reign, a series that chronicles the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. Or Starz’ many variations of alternative history such as the White Queen series, Outlander, and Spartacus. Each of these shows depict historical figures or events that are fixed into our history or consciousness. We know how the English monarchy gets to where it is today. We know that Mary Queen of Scots won’t have her head for long. We know that the Scottish put up a good fight for freedom for a very long time. And, as for Spartacus, well. With Cursed, we are presented young versions of key figures in the iconic Arthurian legends and, for the most part, we all know what fates lay before them. So, the most vital task for the series is to accomplish one thing: be an intriguing journey, regardless of the destination. 

Gustaf Skarsgård standing on a plank, which overlooks rough waters. He is poised as though he is shouting at the sky.

The series has a lot to set up as it rearranges everything, putting us at odds with what we expect. This approach is exciting, with each character Nimue meets we are presented with a version that either affirms or challenges our perception of the hero or villain those characters become. Much of it is informed by the actions Nimue takes. However, as we excitedly await for something that resembles what we know, we are expected to fully invest in Nimue.

With that being said, this series needed this first season and Nimue to lay the groundwork for the next season. We are reintroduced to the lands and characters ruled by Uther Pendragon, and we are shown who has power and what the stakes are.

In many respects, Cursed is very much like Netflix’s other massive fantasy series, The Witcher. Season 1 is the launching pad. Heavy on the set up with a lukewarm payoff, and a massive cliffhanger at the end.

Cursed has great promise as it paves a new path for an intriguing reinterpretation of the legendary story about doing what is right, protecting the innocent, honour, and most importantly, sacrifice. With a mature and patient approach to re-imagining the Arthurian legend and Nimue’s place in that story, Cursed, has the makings of being a great series.

Cursed is available to stream on Netflix now

by Ferdosa Abdi

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