The Letter for the King review: Forgettable fantasy series never quite takes off
The latest attempt to fill the fantasy gap left by Game of Thrones doesn't rise beyond the generic
It was always inevitable that the post-Game of Thrones TV landscape would see a glut of new fantasy series vying to be crowned the most worthy successor to the HBO juggernaut, and less than a year on that's very much proven to be the case. Netflix has appeared especially determined to enter the race - and hot on the heels of its success with The Witcher, the streaming giant has delivered another new candidate for the crown.
The Letter for the King, which arrives on the platform this Friday (20th March), is a rather different beast to many of the other recent entries in the fantasy canon - in that it feels positively quaint by comparison, both in terms of its scale and its tone. Whereas the bulk of recent fantasy fare has clearly been made with an older audience in mind, containing a fair share of graphic violence, sexual content and some notably inventive swearing, The Letter for the King is aiming younger, with the band of teenage heroes at its centre ensuring it comes across as more CBBC than HBO.
The series, which is adapted from a 1962 novel of the same name by Dutch writer Tonke Dragt, primarily concerns Tiuri (Amir Wilson) who we join as he prepares to undergo a gruelling training schedule in a bid to become a knight, in spite of his own reservations about his readiness for such a role. One night, while he and his fellow knights-in-training are taking part in an all-night vigil, Tiuri responds to a knock at the door from the squire of a dying knight who presents Tiuri with the task that will dominate proceedings for the rest of the series: to deliver a letter to King Favian.
Thus follows a long trek as Tiuri attempts to accomplish his mission while being pursued by various factions - including his own fellow trainees - all against the backdrop of the evil Viridian's malevolent plans to grab power by whatever means possible. Along the way he meets an (admittedly rather reluctant) ally in Lavinia (Ruby Serkis), gets himself into all sorts of troublesome situations and comes face to face with an assortment of eccentric figures.
The problem is that, despite some scenery chewing turns from the likes of Omid Djalili and Kim Bodnia along the way, none of these eccentric figures are ever quite eccentric enough to be particularly memorable. Nor, for that matter, are any of the set-pieces striking enough, nor the main villain compelling enough, to lift this series from anything beyond the utterly generic.
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This would be a slightly less urgent issue if the main characters themselves were a little more engaging, but this is another area where the show struggles: Wilson does a decent enough job in the lead role, but he's working with very little - and the sheer passivity of his character often makes it a struggle to become all that invested in the whole thing. Serkis delivers the series best performance as Lavinia - the most three-dimensional of the supporting characters - but the lack of real chemistry between the pair means that a certain plot development later in the series isn't particularly believable.
As for his fellow trainees, in the place of more developed characterisation they seem to have each been given one trait designed to fill in for a fuller personality. One of them, for example is a little bit bossy, one of them is a little bit annoying, and one of them can play the lute. Moreover the dialogue between these characters, as is the case for much of the show, is at best flat and uninspiring and at worst downright cringe inducing. As a result of all this, many character developments towards the end of the series - including not one but two romantic moments - come across as rather unearned, and fail to pack much of a punch.
The series also reels off many clichés of the genre: there's two rival kingdoms playing politics, there's some kind of prophecy concerning an unlikely hero and there's groups of knights with names like "The Red Riders." And while it's perfectly fine - even expected - to play with the genre's tropes, The Letter for the King never does this with a sufficient degree of originality to really stand out from the crowd.
The show is watchable enough, and might serve as a useful way into medieval fantasy for younger audiences who aren't yet ready for the more adult-orientated series that have recently dominated the genre, which is by no means a bad thing. It seems unlikely, however, that this is the next big fantasy series that Netflix might have hoped for. The hunt for the next Game of Thrones goes on...
The Letter for the King is available on Netflix from Friday 20th March