The Arthurian myth is fairly unique within popular culture in that it’s been subject to change and adaptation for hundreds, if not over a thousand, years. One can almost imagine the 15th-century fanboys furiously scribbling on parchment about how Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur egregiously disregards their favourite quests from the 13th-century Vulgate Cycle, while others still insist that real fans only read The Black Book of Camarthen.
Still, despite hundreds of textual and screen versions of the story over the years there’s always a new angle – and the latest comes from engaging new Netflix series Cursed, a fantasy drama created by Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller (adapting their own illustrated novel) that re-centres the story around Katherine Langford’s Nimue, aka the Lady of the Lake.
Yes, that Lady of the Lake, best known for giving King Arthur his famous blade Excalibur (“strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government,” as Monty Python’s Holy Grail once put it) and not much else, is getting her own origin story. Cue plenty of scenes where Katherine Langford bursts from bodies of water, swinging the watery scimitar around herself.
In Cursed, Nimue (pronounced Nim-way) is a troubled young Fae woman (essentially the term for humanoid but somewhat magical creatures) feared and detested by her peers after a childhood accident gave her strange, uncontrollable powers.
However, when a religious crusade (led by Peter Mullan’s Father Carden) begins burning and murdering all magical people, Nimue will have to rely on her gifts to gather allies, battle her enemies and (most crucially of all) deliver a sword to Merlin. A sword called Excalibur…
Of course, this means we meet younger versions of famed mythical figures in the style of BBC drama Merlin (or Superman prequel Smallville), including good characters destined to turn evil and vice versa. Some of these are revealed over the course of the series (in fact, it happens almost comically often) while others are obvious from the start, most notably Devon Terrell’s clean-cut sellsword Arthur and Gustaf Skarsgård’s Merlin, a definite standout in the packed cast.
Merlin here is more drunken druid than Dumbledore-like wizard or boy hero, bearing an oddly close resemblance to Paul Kaye’s character Thoros in Game of Thrones and bringing a welcome wildness and levity to a story that sometimes teeters on over-earnestness. Langford, meanwhile, stands out slightly less as the fairly bland Nimue, even as her resistance to the religious Red Paladins transforms her into a leader and symbol of rebellion for all the displaced Fae.
Speaking of Thrones, the elephant in the room (or rather, Questing Beast in the Banquet Hall) for any quasi-medieval fantasy show is how it compares to HBO’s smash-hit series. Within the cast you can certainly look out for a few Thrones graduates. Clive Russell (aka Brynden Tully) pops up as a tusked member of Nimue’s allies (see below), while original Night King Richard Brake has a small role as one of the Red Paladins.
With regards to the tone, while Cursed doesn’t have quite the scale or depth of Westeros it does succeed in evoking Thrones’ style of warring, interlocked factions, with the Fae and the Red Paladins also tangling up with the royal forces of King Uther (Sebastian Arnesto) and Viking invaders keen to take Excalibur for themselves.
Cursed never quite feels big enough to tell this epic story – the final episode’s clash is oddly anti-climactic, and some of the worldbuilding doesn’t make a lot of sense – but overall the storytelling does a good job of showcasing varied, interesting characters in a growing cycle of violence.
However, it might be that some fans don’t stay long enough to find that out. Cursed is definitely a bit of a slow starter, with the first couple of episodes stuffed with awkward performances and exposition that might put viewers off before the series finds its feet later on in the run.
If people do get through the opening, though, Cursed is worth sticking with. If nothing else, it’s always fun to get a new chapter in a story nearly as old as our entire civilisation –albeit now written in digital ones and zeros, rather than the traditional vellum.