In Netflix’s new fantasy series The Witcher, erstwhile Superman Henry Cavill plays the titular monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia, a gruff and taciturn swordsman hated and feared by the people he protects from supernatural beasties.
And in watching the emotionally stunted, often unpleasant and self-destructive Geralt slowly reveal his inner goodness and flashes of nobility, I couldn’t help but think of him as a representation of this series as a whole – flawed, awkward and sometimes difficult to understand, but ultimately lovable.
Does the Witcher have issues? Yes, plentifully. But did I also completely, unironically enjoy watching the whole thing? Yes, yes I did.
Based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of novels (and, indirectly, the more well-known videogames created as a sequel to them), this series takes us to a fantasy world known only as The Continent, broken into petty kingdoms and menaced by various monsters that require the skills of a Witcher – a super-strong, super-sensed mutant created by magic – to slay them.
However, by the time we catch up with Geralt in the series, Witchers have become victims of prejudice and misinformation, hated by the general populace because of their differences while their work dries up as people become less and less afraid of monsters. At this turning point Geralt is caught in a number of situations and jobs – largely drawn from Sapkowski’s first short story collection The Last Wish – that begin to make him question his place in the world, while destiny appears to draw him to a young girl.
Said girl, Ciri (Freya Allan) is a Princess from a Kingdom under threat, introduced much earlier here than she is in the books but a key figure in Geralt’s story. Alongside the pair of them is Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), an immortal witch/sorceress and Geralt’s on-again, off-again love interest (who here is given a hugely expanded backstory), and together this trio of characters represent the main threads of the Witcher TV series.
In many ways, Geralt is a gift of a role for Cavill, partially because he’s a fan of the source material – in fact, he lobbied hard for the part and often played a role in creative choices during the series – but also because he plays to the actor’s strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes on-screen Cavill can come across a little stiff and unlikable, which is why he hasn’t always been a successful Superman – but as the taciturn, gruff Geralt? Tick tick.
Similarly, Cavill’s great talent for stunts and physical acting (memorably demonstrated in the latest Mission: Impossible film) make him the ideal avatar for master swordsman Geralt, with various duel scenes in the series (one in the first episode with a fellow magic-infused mutant particularly stands out) outstripping even the fight choreography of a show like Game of Thrones.
Other leading actors do a less memorable, if decent enough job – Allan and Chalotra are both convincing as Ciri and Yennefer, while Joey Batey’s comic relief minstrel Jaskier (sometimes called Dandelion in the books and games) may be a bit of a Marmite figure for viewers – though a few guest players come slightly under par, especially in a somewhat underwhelming elf storyline in the second episode.
And as noted, there are other issues with the Witcher. Sometimes, the dense backstory and fantasy-style naming conventions may be a little confusing and alienating for viewers, who might wonder why they should care if a place called Cintra is invaded by a place called Nilfgaard, and how Redania, Temeria and Brokilon fit into the whole thing. Having read the books I found it relatively easy to follow, but ideally any series would be accessible to a casual audience.
Also, it’s hard not to wish that the series would focus more on Cavill’s Geralt (by far the most interesting character) and his monster-hunting activities, with the overall Ciri arc – which goes down the route of a familiar “evil fantasy kingdom attacks other fantasy kingdom, chosen one runs away” story – just less engaging despite its centrality to the plot. (Though in fairness, this is also an issue I had with the book series.)
Meanwhile, interesting themes of racism, prejudice and women’s place in a feudal fantasy world are brought up then slightly sidestepped or wasted, and it’s hard to know exactly what this series is saying about anything.
Like I said – there’s a lot wrong with The Witcher, even beyond what I’ve listed above. But somehow, despite all that, I found myself loving it. I loved watching Geralt grunt, punch his way out of problems and deliver wisecracks, and I laughed when Jaskier broke the fourth wall. I was intrigued by the supernatural creatures Geralt faced, took note of some clever plot twists added from the books, and found myself enraptured by the on-screen combat.
Somehow, despite everything that doesn’t work about The Witcher, it worked for me – and I can imagine that other fans of the books, who are already bedded into this world and its characters, will have a similar experience. (Having not played the game, I can’t vouch for fans of that.)
The Witcher has already been renewed for another season, so whatever happens we’ll be in for plenty more adventures from Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer as they make their way through The Continent. Hopefully, for first-timers to the franchise that won’t seem like too monstrous a prospect…
This review was based on episodes 1-5 of Netflix’s The Witcher, which were made available to press before release
The Witcher is streaming on Netflix UK now