Adapted from Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler’s YA fantasy novel, Eamon Hennedy takes a look at Netflix’s Cursed.
Sometimes going into a television series or movie with low expectations can be a good thing. On paper, Cursed is the latest in a long line of fantasy series to come from Netflix, adapted from a YA novel. Premiering only a mere few weeks after the launch of Warrior Nun, playing into the realm of Arthurian legends, characters and tropes and which was maybe a little hard to feel any excitement for.
At first glance it looks like the type of fantasy drama that wouldn’t look out of place on BBC1 on a Saturday or Sunday night, playing to a family audience. Of course, the BBC’s Merlin has only been off the air for a few years and might seem fresh in our minds, having won over a fan favourite following and making stars of its young cast. With a mixture of established names and respectable thespians such as Peter Mullan starring as the villain, not to mention a lush look to it along with its fantasy elements, you could imagine sitting down to Cursed either side of the National Lottery draw.
Any semblance of family viewing is quickly tossed aside around the fifteen-minutes in.
After introducing us to Katherine Langford’s Nimue and her world of the Fey, Peter Mullan shows up as the series’ central antagonist and body parts start flying and the death count rises instantly begins to rise, turning Cursed into something darker and violent. It never becomes as bloodthirsty as Game of Thrones, but we’re still a long way away from Saturday nights at 7:00 pm on the BBC.
The first episode ends with Katherine Langford’s Nimue decapitating and slicing up a bunch of wolves trying to attack her, the CGI blood literally splashing itself on to the screen. The level of intensity and violence shouldn’t be a surprise given that the series is based on a series of novels co-written by Frank Miller. His previous forays into the world of comic books brought with it graphically stylised retellings of 300, as well as some of the most brutal and political depictions of Batman and Superman; not to mention an ability to take some of the most famous characters in pop culture history and utilise them in controversial ways.
Although Miller is still credited as co-creator and executive producer on Cursed’s television adaptation, a large bulk of the writing is done by others, including co-creator Tom Wheeler, with Pretty Little Liars and iZombie director Zetna Fuentes bringing an elegant, lush sheen to the first two episodes that set a tone and style for the rest of the series.
Netflix has been releasing a lot of fantasy dramas and coming of the age stories the last couple of years, and Cursed feels like a natural progression of that. It combines high fantasy, with younger characters, a diverse cast with a female lead front and centre, in this case, a star from one of their previous big hitters. You could be cynical and suggest Netflix is trying to launch a series that they know will play into their demographics based on previous successes, and this is the second high profile fantasy drama to be launched in as many weeks following the premiere of Warrior Nun.
However, the series works pretty well. The first episode does some requisite world-building with the world of the Fey, so much so that it could almost have just been a series about Nimue and her life there and worked just as well, but it quickly adds tension and drama. Purists will complain because they have nothing better to do when it comes to the series’ decision to take a colour-blind approach to some of the casting choices. But when everyone here is doing a good job with their performances, with Shalom Bruce-Franklin making an instant impression as Morgana, you would like to think that any complaints would be few and far between.
There is a lot gentle subversion going on here with the characterisation and it makes for a richly entertaining run of episodes. With Nimue, the series is putting a spin on the story that’s centring The Lady of the Lake at the heart of the narrative. While it does devote screen time to the ongoing story threads of its famous male characters, with a thieving Arthur (Devon Terrel) who comes with a tragic backstory and a frequently drunken Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard), Cursed thankfully never loses sight of Nimue during the plethora of ongoing threads.
It’s never going to win awards for originality, this is after the third story centring around Arthurian legend in as many years, following not only the BBC’s Merlin but also Starz’s one-season wonder Camelot which came from a pre-Broadchurch Chris Chibnall.
Of course, Cursed falls into the realm of YA fantasy adaptation, so it’s ticking many boxes in terms of the type of series it is and there’s no doubt that Netflix is pursuing an attempt at a big commercial hit with it. But put aside any cynicism that you might have and the storytelling not only works, but it sweeps you along with its pace which seldom lags and which for its ten-hour runtime makes for entertaining viewing.
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