A tragically dull lead, boring villains, dreadful writing, dreadful costumes... okay effects?
It seems Netflix shows these days are a little bit like playing Russian Roulette. There are a few gems, but a lot of them are burning heaps of trash. The fantasy show Cursed unfortunately falls into the latter category. I was looking to satisfy that craving for fantasy that I suspect we all feel from time to time. But I should have been looking elsewhere to satisfy that appetite. The pilot episode alone is so abysmal, that only my desire to watch a complete train wreck could compel me to watch further episodes. I have currently watched up to episode 3, but just in the pilot episode alone there is enough awfulness that runs consistent throughout the show. Is it fair to judge a show by 3 episodes alone? I think its at least fair game for criticism.
So, lets talk about it.
Cursed is yet another take on the Arthurian legend, although it is unclear where and when exactly this tale takes place. A lot of the shooting locations seem to be in the UK, so I suppose they are going for some sort of pseudo medieval England, but it remains vague. The show starts off with our heroine riddled with arrows, sinking in the water. This scene remains unexplained as of watching this. According to the comments, this is eventually explained. Although I do not expect a good reason, given the show's poor writing.
I think one of the show's biggest problems is the boring lead and the incompetent writing. The pilot episode is rife with inconsistencies, bizarre plot choices and coincidences, and bare bones dialogue. The show is also terrible at communicating travel distances. But we'll get to all of that, lets talk about the casting first.
Katherine Langford plays the lead role of Nimue, and acting-wise she does an adequate job with the material she's given. I feel however that she is dreadfully miscast as a leading lady. She is so boring and she never succeeds at convincing the audience that she can carry this show. There is just nothing compelling about her portrayal of this character that makes you want to watch more. Gustaf Sharsgard does a fine job as drunk Merlin, although he's basically just playing the exact same character as he was on Vikings (or so I'm told). Then there is Arthur, played by Devon Tyrell... which is an odd choice. Apart from the fact that again he's not very compelling to watch, the casting of black actors feels really off in this show. I'm all in favor of diverse representation, but considering the setting and time period (which remains a bit of a mystery) it is just odd seeing black actors in some of these roles (including a black nun in an abbey). It is also odd seeing two nuns kiss (each other) and use foul language. Yeah, this show is all over the place. Should there be more ethnic diversity in fantasy movies and tv shows? Absolutely. But is this medieval England or not?
Nimue is chased out of her village for using her dark fey magic (conjuring a minor Entanglement spell basically), which seems to trigger whenever she gets emotional... but conveniently doesn't work when the plot calls for it (such as when a monk is murdering her own mother in front of her). These monks seem to have it in for her throughout the show, and magically appear wherever she goes, regardless of what distance she travels... they are just there. It is not entirely clear what religeon these monks are supposed to belong to. They do crucify suspected witches on crosses (which they are some how able to do in the middle of raiding a village, which is really quick), but we never see them wearing obvious Christian symbols, but they are all dressed as if they walked straight out of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch. So these are supposed to be baddies, but again the actors here are not convincing villains. They don't give off any menacing vibe what so ever, and are cartoonishly evil.
(You would be forgiven for thinking this was a villain from the Dungeons & Dragons movie.)
I won't go over the messy plot in its entirely, but at some point the show introduces a mysterious villain who is always dressed in a dark cloak and hood. But the show seems undecided if they want to keep him a mystery or not, because they constantly show his face, and then film him from behind again so we can't see his face. Make up your mind! Also, he looks like his mascara is drooping down his face; not very intimidating. The costuming is also not very inspired here. Everyone is dressed so bland.
Wait, what is happening? Why is the show all animated now? Ah yes, the scene transitions. What a bizarre stylistic choice. The show has the most jarring scene transitions. Where a simple cut would have sufficed, the show instead uses these elaborate Adobe After Effects-like animations that do not fit the tone of the show at all. They look tacky, as does the effect of blood splattered over the screen which the episode ends on. It should come as no surprise that everyone who dislikes the show, mentions the jarring scene transitions.
(All of these costumes look brand new, like they've never been worn. It is so jarring.)
The costumes on this show are also pretty terrible. Not only do they look very generic (especially on the leads), but they all look like they have never been used. I'm not saying that all medieval peasants need to be covered in mud, but some semblance of wear would have made the show look a lot more convincing. None of these costumes look like they've ever been worn. They look fresh out of the box, and everyone looks like that, even the extras!
The travel scenes in this show are weird and confusing. The villains seems to teleport all over the place whenever needed, and its never quite clear how far the various locations are apart from each other. When Nimue flees on horseback and hides in the forest, all of a sudden her friend Arthur is also there.... without a horse! How did he catch up to her so fast? He didn't flee with her, and I didn't see him on a horse. Then she goes to another town, -and oh look- , it is the same monks again, lead by the same villain, who are now also there. I think Nimue is being railroaded by the Dungeon Master. He just wants her to stop dodging his carefully crafted encounters.
(Some of these effects are honestly not bad at all)
The special effects in the show are adequate for the most part (and less jarring than some of the Witcher's effects). There are some CGI background replacements, which look servicable. There are some CGI creatures, such as CGI wolves in episode 1, and a bear in a later episode. While clearly CGI, they look okay for a tv show. CGI animals are very hard to do, so I'm a bit more forgiving for a Netflix tv show, since not every fantasy show has a budget like Game of Thrones had. That said, the need to have these creatures in the story to begin with is far more questionable. Why is she fighting wolves now? Where did they come from all of a sudden? Why doesn't she ever use her powers when it would be really useful? And why does she swing that sword around like a paraplegic woodcutter? Also, where the hell did she get that sword?
(Apparently people were all over these wolf effects, but they look fine to me.)
I had to rewind a bit, as my attention was waning. Surely there would be a proper set up for how she gets the all important magical sword? No... no there isn't. Her mother just has it, for some reason, and tells her to take it to Merlin. Then her mother (who also has magical powers) gets murderered by a single monk. Nimue thinks hard what to do: Should she run away? Should she use the magic sword? Should she use her magical powers, which manifest during emotional situations? She chooses to do neither one of these things, and simply watches as her mother is murdered by this one monk, and then she flees.
The production design is alright. The town sets look pretty convincing, and they've clearly used some real locations for some of the interior shots. Although that abbey in episode 3 looks really familiar. Isn't that the same location they used for the king's castle in episode 1? I would have to go back and check. For the most part, the sets look fine. Some of the fantasy forest bits clearly were on a very small set, because you can tell the camera and actor movement is really restricted. But they do have a couple of good looking city scenes here and there. I keep trying to spot modern lighting fixtures whenever they shoot a scene in an abbey, because you can clearly tell what are sets, and what are real locations.
Where it really all falls apart is the writing and the casting. This show is desperately in need of a better lead and better villains. The writing may improve (although I do not expect a season 2), and it could introduce new villains, but the show would still be stuck with a tragically dull lead.