Cursed: A Valiant Effort With A Rocky Execution

“We often have white Fey being distrustful of Arthur and calling him derogatory remarks meant to demean humans. The show likes to pretend that a black man who grew up poor wouldn’t know anything about oppression.”

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The ten-episode Netflix adaptation of Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler’s fantasy novel Cursed tells the story of the rise of King Arthur from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on Arthur or Merlin, the series centers around Nimue (pronounced Nim-Way) played by Katherine Langford (13 Reason Why, Love Simon, Knives Out), who is destined to one day become the Lady of the Lake.

The series wastes no time telling you Nimue’s situation as an outcast among her people, the magically imbued Fey. As a young child, Nimue was attacked by a demon who sought her power to call upon a magical force called The Hidden. She survives the attack but is left with scars that serve as a reminder of the attack. The disfigurement of her back leaves her isolated because the other Fey see it as a sign of a curse. The series follows Nimue’s rise to power as she eventually comes to lead the Fey.
Much like similar recent fantasy series, Cursed uses the idea of fictional races as a minority metaphor. Firstly with how Nimue is othered by her people and then how the different Fey races as viewed by the humans, particularly the group called the Red Paladins. And while the series does go to some interesting places in its interpretation of Arthurian lore, Cursed often finds itself falling into the same tropes as other recent fantasy series. A flaw that I believe holds it back from its true potential.

However, despite its flaws, the real appeal of this show is seeing the many twists and revelations unravelling as the story goes on. The both obvious and genuinely surprising connections between these characters make for an entertaining watch. Where the show succeeds most is in making the central trio of Nimue, Arthur and Morgana enjoyable to follow. Arthur and Morgana being played by Devon Terrel and Shalom Brune-Franklin, respectively. Both give standout performances as to my knowledge, the first black Arthur and Morgana in an Arthurian story.

We first meet Arthur as he’s trying to impress Nimue during a chance encounter at a tavern before it is revealed that he is part of a group of thieves. Throughout the series, we see him grow from a would-be thief to proving his worth as a knight alongside Nimue and the likes of Gawain, the Green Knight of the Fey (sadly not Dev Patel). Arthur learns of his own self worth and manages to be the kind of knight he believed he’d have to buy his way into becoming.

As for Morgana, she is introduced as Igraine, a nun who studies medicine while she secretly aids the Fey by feeding them information from the Red Paladins who pass through her village. Without spoiling too much, Morgana’s character is perhaps the most interesting despite her being given the least to work with. She’s a black lesbian nun who is also a spy, so I’d watch her Netflix show in a heartbeat if she had one. I feel that she was underutilized for most of the season, despite the level of importance given to her character. Brune-Franklin and Terrel give stellar performances throughout, particularly during a heart to heart between the two siblings near the end of the season.

However, while the show gets points for having people of colour in non-traditional roles in fantasy, it takes two steps back in other areas. Cursed often takes a very colorblind approach to its writing. It casts these people in varying roles but also fails to acknowledge certain aspects of their authentic identities. We often have white Fey being distrustful of Arthur and calling him derogatory remarks meant to demean humans. The show likes to pretend that a black man who grew up poor wouldn’t know anything about oppression. Even though the circumstances of his and Morgana’s upbringing are mentioned every so often, they end up feeling like afterthoughts instead of thoughtful commentary.  There are also less clear cases like a particular group of Fey being played by mostly Asian actors who’s makeup just happens to make them look green and reptilian.  It feels clumsy alongside moments like Merlin describing how the world of man has treated the Fey throughout the years. A monologue that very clearly draws from examples of real-life acts of oppression.

I feel bad that I find myself disappointed in some of the choices this show makes because I really do find myself invested not only in the leading trio but the supporting cast of characters as well. Pym (Lily Newmark of Anne of Green Gables) stands out with her journey from the Fey village to working with a gang of renegade Vikings and finding romance among them. Gawain (Matt Stokoe) serves as an exciting mirror and rival to Arthur. Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard) manages to play all sides of the conflict within the show. Though it seems that his main concern is his own safety, we very quickly learn that there is more at play. And on the villain side of things, The Weeping Monk, played by Daniel Sherman, feels like an Arthurian Kylo Ren. A menacing, seemingly unstoppable force for the Red Paladins who always seems to be one step ahead of our heroes.

Cursed has managed to grab me in a way that other shows like it have failed to do. I personally find some of Frank Miller’s work to be hit or miss, so I was presently surprised when I finally got the chance to watch this adaptation and found that I was enjoying myself. I credit much of this effort to the women behind the camera, such as Zetna Fuentes (Director of episodes 1 and 2), Janet Lin (Writer of episode 3), Leila Gerstein (Writer of episode 5) and Sarah O’Gorman (director of episodes 9 and 10). That being said, I can not allow myself to look past its numerous faults.

I really do want to recommend this show for fans of the fantasy genre, mainly shows like The Witcher. But like The Witcher, Cursed comes with its own host of problems that leave it just shy of the mark from me being able to recommend it to people. I do think it is worth giving a watch, but I hope that Cursed manages to learn from its mistakes and make something truly great out of itself rather than lean into them as so many adaptations have in the past.

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