The Legend of King Arthur is a tale that has been told, and retold, for centuries. The true and brave heart of a young man (who variations of the legend label him as a knight, a squire, or a warrior) who pulled the sword Excalibur from the stone – or as further variations claim, given to him by the Lady of the Lake. Though it is not only the stories of King Arthur and his Round Table that have filled the ears of those fascinated by his legends. Merlin, The Lady of the Lake, Guinevere, Lancelot and Morgana each have had their legends intertwined with Arthur’s – each finding their own variations through storytellers and modern cinema.
While Cursed includes Arthur, the focus is instead on a young Fay Faerie named Nimue and her journey to avenge the deaths of her people, save those who still remain and keep the sword of kings from falling into the wrong hands. And while legends of the past have followed Arthur’s journeys having wielded the sword, naming him the true king, audiences are giving the chance to see an alternate choice – a queen.
Far From Cursed
Cursed immediately dives into the life of Nimue (Katherine Langford), an outcasted member of the Fay Faerie tribe. While pure of heart and strong-willed, it is believed she has been cursed since childhood, a run-in with a demonic bear leaving scars of trauma across her back. While others shy away, leaving her to doubt herself, her strength and power grow just below the surface. As she fights her nature, fights who she is to become, the hidden magic that runs through the forest and through her veins chooses her to be the new Sorceress – to lead.
Driven to fear by the villagers and her perceived curse, Nimue flees the village refusing her destiny and shutting her true self away. Though, as she will find, she was always where she should have been. As the Red Paladins, crusaders for the church lead by Father Carden (Peter Mullan, Ozark), descend upon her village, burning and “purifying” the demons, Nimue finds that her charge as Sorceress will lead her down the dangerous path of destiny and leadership, each step led by the strength and power of the sword she wields – the sword that has chosen her.
Almost instantly in the first episode, there is a split from the Arthurian Legend many may have grown up with – though while also bordering on similarities. From the introduction of Arthur and the Red Paladin’s to the role of Merlin and the Widow of Death, it all feels like a story you have heard before, yet modernized for a new generation. Cursed still maintains many elements of the legends, yet molds them into a slightly different tale.
Relationships too between characters are different from the legends. The relationship between Merlin and Nimue is different than in previous stories, lending itself to an almost awkward feel if you are unable to shake the versions of the past. Many of Nimue’s relationships with legendary characters are different as well, though to reveal the specifics would be to spoil the series’ best surprises. As the series continues, and potential changes present themselves, you are sure to find yourself googling each character introduced along the way.
As you adjust to the changes in the stories and relish in the little nuances and nods, the series begins its rollercoaster ride over the course of its 10 episode arc. At times, the pace is perfect, keeping the story moving, the characters engaging and the suspense heightened. Other times, however, the series loses momentum, pulled back by unnecessary storylines that feel more like filler than a means to genuinely propel the story forward.
It is in these moments you find yourself wishing there were fewer characters, wishing you could spend just a little more time with onscreen favorites. Many times, I felt robbed as a viewer, lacking depth in characters and storylines, many times their arch completed before you could truly understand who they were and their purpose. At times, the poorly written script and lines of dialogue made them as easy to spot for death as a Starfleet officer in a redshirt.
And when death comes, it is brutal. Cursed can be savage at times, giving away to the graphic gore that our imaginations draw of the time period. While still pulled back for a younger audience it at times seems to want to include, there is a shock at how graphic Cursed can truly become. Add in the choreography and action, and these will also be some of the most engaging moments in the series.
Bringing a Legend to Life
Yet, while the pace and dialogue left much to be desired at times, Cursed finds much of its success in the details. Based on the YA illustrated novel from Thomas Wheeler and Frank Miller, Cursed lends its appreciation for the source material through carefully inserted nods to the book’s illustrator. Utilizing animation similar to the drawings of Miller for the novel, the series’ creators craft an intriguing animated introduction – accompanied by the ethereal and hauntingly enchanted music of Jeff Russo. Further keeping the illustrations alive, Cursed utilizes the same animation throughout the series to transition between scenes. Accompanied by the sound of flames, imagery is burned into the viewer’s minds of the character’s past and events to come. At times a brief recap, other times foreshadowing, this animation was one of the more clever elements brought to life to keep the spirit of the novel alive.
Speaking of imagery, Cursed also draws not just on the source material for its inspiration, but from a variety of works before it. Episode one “Nimue” introduces The Weeping Monk (played by Daniel Sharman, who is sure to become a fan favorite) as he walks through a fiery forest, brutally slaying those of magical origin. Cloaked in black, instantly viewers will be reminded of Star Wars – and more specifically Anakin Skywalker. Episode 5 “The Joining” really begins to show the deeply rooted influence of Game of Thrones as Cumber the Ice King (the name alone screams GOT) is claiming he is the rightful King Pendragon (again, the name screams GOT) and he has come to claim his throne. I found myself looking at a hybrid of Dothraki, Dorne, the Ironborn, and Daenerys Targaryen. These influences will only grow stronger as the series continues, especially in the Cersei-esq overbearing relationship of King Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto) and his mother Lady Lunete (Polly Walker).
Having spoken with executive producer and director Zetna Fuentes of episodes 1 “Nimue” and 2 “Cursed”, I was aware that Lord of the Rings was also an influence for the series. While I could feel it running through the veins of Cursed, it was never more apparent than in episode 7 “Bring Us Good Ale” when hidden tunnels and lurking spiders having you waiting for Gandalf to yell “You Shall Not Pass”.
Cursed finds strength too in both its set and costume designs. The forest is a rich green, vibrant and enlightening. Even the flowers that accompany it are a brilliant floral arrangement of colors. As the series begins to get darker, the color is drained from much of the set, grey hues seeping more and more into the color palette. With regards to costume, while the color palette stays roughly the same throughout, it is the change in Nimue’s clothes that retain the true meanings. As the series begins, she is in a light blueish, grey dress, looking more like a young girl than the future Sorceress of the Fay. As the series continues, her wardrobe changes to match her journey: more regal as she leaves the Abby, more womanly and sexualized as she faces down the caves and finally a warrior by the season’s conclusions. Her outfits are markings of her journey and the milestones of her destiny.
As each of the elements come together, delivering an entertaining season overall, I find myself enamored with some of the characters – mostly due to the performances of the actors behind them. The Weeping Monk is brought to life by Daniel Sherman in a brutal and conflicted delivery. There is a depth that is given to the monk, with new layers added to each episode, from the subtle reactions and expressions of Sherman. Instantly, he is a character that will ensnare your attention, even after the season has ended.
Katherine Langford returns to Netflix (13 Reasons Why, Love, Simon) in a powerful, yet equally vulnerable performance as Nimue. There are a struggle and a fear that resides just beneath the surface, one that molds and shifts as the series progress. Langford’s ability to control and harness this through each episode is a sign of growth in this budding actress. She is the lead in a male-driven legend, and she carries the weight with pride and strength.
While the series is littered with a menagerie of characters, there are two other standouts. Gustavo Skarsgård shines as Merlin (though at times reminiscent of Gary Oldman in Harry Potter), a sly delivery of a lying, aging, and powerless sorcerer sure to garner him a solid fan base. He is one character that at times feels as though he is not getting enough attention, that there is more to him – something I hope to see in Season 2. Surprisingly, The Crown’s Billy Jenkins steals the season playing Squirrel, a young Fay determined to avenge the deaths of his family, all while proving his bravery and usefulness to the Green Knight.
While Cursed has its downsides, it needs to be commended for its diversity. First and foremost, its continued focus on Nimue. While this series is about the chosen Queen of the sword, it would have been all to easy for the creators to shift the focus from Nimue to Arthur with each episode. Yet the focus of the story holds true. And honestly, the last time I can remember seeing such a memorable leading lady in Arthurian legend was 2001’s miniseries Mists of Avalon.
Though Nimue is not the only strong female character introduced, the creators of Cursed refusing to let her swim in a sea strictly of men. Kaze (Adams Ononogbo) is a warrior and the protector of Nimue. She stands by her Queen, defending her and giving her wisdom in her darkest moments. Sister Iris (Emily Coates), even as a villain, has the strength of character. Determined to become a Red Paladin, she does not allow the male-driven purification prevent her from reaching her goals. And Morgana/ Sister Igraine (Shalom Brune-Franklin) rounds out a powerhouse of women, protecting and advising Nimue, with the fortitude and strength of her own power. These are each independent women holding strong to the legends Cursed provides them.
Yet, it is not only the inclusion of strong women that stands out, but rather the casting of different ethnicities that deserves attention as well. Historically throughout cinema, King Arthur is portrayed by a white male. Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Sean Connery (Last Knight), Richard Harris (Camelot), Graham Chapman (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and more have all taken on the role of Arthur – all white. Cursed, however, leans away from the need of a one type image of the knight, casting Devon Terrell in the role of Arthur. The same can be said for Morgana. Typically cast as a white woman (Katie McGrath in Merlin and Helen Mirren in Excalibur), Brune Franklin brings diversity to a classic role in Cursed.
It will be interesting to see if Cursed is renewed for a second season. There is still a vast amount of source material that has still yet to be drawn on and molded for a new age. While the conclusion of Season one appears to deliver some definitive answers for its audience, it is far from over.
While season one had its ups and downs, there is still a curiosity to where it will go next, and a renewed fascination with the legends. Many newcomers to the story of Nimue and Arthur will definitely find intrigue in the story that is delivered, crafting a newfound discovery into the Arthurian legends and folklore. While not a solid in doctrine to the mystical stories of old, Cursed will most certainly keep viewers entertained while introducing a new generation to the stories of old.
Have you seen Cursed? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!
Cursed is currently available on Netflix!
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