“Before King Arthur, the sword chose a Queen.”
So announces the dramatic voiceover on fantasy series Cursed.
Cursed is adapted from the illustrated book by Thomas Wheeler, who also did the screenplay, but the big name attached to the project is Frank Miller; multi award winning comic book writer, illustrator, producer and screenwriter who transfused DC Comics with gritty, vivid new life in The Dark Knight Returns, and also gave us Sin City, the comic and film.
The court of King Arthur has had a makeover where Nimue, one of the lesser characters of the traditional canon, is the central female heroine. Feminist or clever reformulating because there’s a teen girl audience in the current zeitgeist???
First scene in series one introduces us to a young woman on horseback, active and strong. This is Nimue, played by Katherine Langford (the Perth born actress who came to prominence in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why). She is destined to find the Sword and to become Lady of the Lake – in this version of the legend at any rate.
The production is rich and detailed. Enchantments and magic elements are interestingly presented, as are the illustrated scene transitions that give the story a fairy tale texture.
The ‘hero journey’ theme is laid on too obviously. Nimue, the daughter of the village High Priestess, is declared the new Summoner in a magical rite. She has a tantrum and refuses the job, packs her knapsack and leaves, pausing only to collect a female buddy/sidekick whose main role is to act as foil for Nimue’s ‘tude.
The obvious bad guys are the Paladin priests, nasty men dressed in red, led by a sadistic Peter Mullan. Here’s where fairy tale veers into Game of Thrones gore and violence.
Other main players from the Arthurian legends are introduced. Merlin is a quixotic drunk played by Gustav Skarsgard in, almost, a reprise of his role as Loki in Vikings. King Uther is less primitive Dark Ages ruler and more a cultured Shakespeare snarling orders from the royal dais.
The plot juggles these different characters and their interweaving stories, with Nimue and Merlin’s interconnecting destinies concerning stewardship of the Sword at the spine of the various narratives.
Devon Terrell is reimagined as a hot young Arthur on his own mission, with inevitable sexual tension between him and Nimue. Guinevere turns up as a badass warrior, Lady Igraine is a nun.
If it’s classic Arthurian legend you’re after, don’t hold your breath. Cursed is all over the place with historical context, a broadly medieval GoT with barely a nod to the traditional storylines and characters of the classic canon.
The coming of age story is designed to appeal to a female teen audience who are seeking the kind of strong heroine on the side of right that Kristen Stewart did so well in Snow White and The Huntsman. The R rating may be a lure for male and older audiences, and you will need a strong stomach for the blood and guts. It’s in keeping with Miller’s violent oeuvre, plus there are slick magical FX sprinkled through the mix.
Apart from early mentions in Celtic folklore, the first stories describing Arthur were by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1138). Various tales appear throughout the next centuries but it’s the fifteenth century’s Thomas Mallory’s La Morte d’Arthur that gave us the most complete series of romantic Arthurian stories.
It’s a long way from Mallory to Guy Ritchie’s 2017 film version King Arthur: Legend of the Sword starring Charlie Hunnan. The box office failure was blamed on audiences being glutted on GoT medieval fare and its overly male ‘boys and banter’ focus.
Perhaps the interweaving Arthurian tales are more suited to adaptation for TV episodes. Merlin (2008-2012) was a lot of fun, mixing broad comedy with magic and drama as it milked almost the whole arc of Arthur legends plus invented stories of the young magician who goes on to become King Arthur’s power behind the throne.
Merlin (1998) was a mini-series that also did well with its flavour of Celtic magic and strong performances by Sam Neill in the title role alongside Isabella Rossellini as the traditional version of Nimue, and Helena Bonham Carter, always up for a bad girl role, as Morgan Le Fay.
Excalibur (1981) enjoyed box office success. Starring Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and Gabrielle Byrne, it was directed by the late John Boorman and developed stories close to the original fantasy. A comic spin on the legend came courtesy of 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The First Knight (1995) with Sean Connery and Richard Gere fighting over Julia Ormond focused more on Camelot’s domestic triangle, as did the musical Camelot (1967) with the equivalent stars of their day, Richard Harris, Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave. This early, lush version of the tale was hugely successful in the entirely well-worn tropes of ‘love object’ women who pick flowers courted by men with swords and armour. Before Covid, Camelot was still popping up in theatre productions.
The Mists of Avalon (2001) is perhaps the version closest to a feminist perspective, as adapted from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s book of the same name. Mists was a cable TV series with a strong cast including Anjelica Huston and Samantha Mathis. It was based on the character of Arthur’s Aunt Vivienne – the Lady of the Lake in the original canon.