Fantasy series based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s books struggles to balance the incompatible tones of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Game Of Thrones
THE WITCHER (Lauren Schmidt Hissrich). All eight episodes streaming on Netflix Friday (December 20). Rating: NN
The Witcher really, really, really wants to fill the Game Of Thrones-shaped void in your heart. But it also wants to be a shaggy mystical adventure series about a mystical mercenary who wanders from town to town, hunting monsters. And it ends up succeeding at neither of those things.
It’s a shame, because when Henry Cavill is stomping around as Geralt of Rivia, the cranky monster-hunter of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s books (which served as the basis for some very popular video games), The Witcher has a loose, loopy energy that reminded me of self-consciously cheesy 90s television like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess – shows where characters spoke modern, colloquial English in order to reassure the viewer not to take everything so seriously and just enjoy the stunts and sword fights.
I got the sense, a couple of episodes into The Witcher, that this was the kind of show Cavill thought he was making: set in an internally consistent fantasy universe, and perfectly capable of getting serious when it needs to be, but also just entertaining. And whenever the show focuses on Geralt, drinking and screwing his way around the land known only as The Continent, that’s pretty much what it is. I liked that show. Unfortunately, Geralt of Rivia is not the only principal character.
Because it is a big, ambitious tale of epic warfare and intertwined destinies, The Witcher also follows two other key players while Geralt is busy hunting beasts in other villages. The first one we meet is young Ciri (Freya Allen), a princess in hiding after her kingdom is overthrown her destiny, we are informed, is tied to Geralt’s.
Elsewhere, there’s Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a malformed peasant girl sold to a mage (Kill List’s MyAnna Buring) and schooled in the art of magic. She will not be malformed for very long, which is going spawn a whole mess of entirely justified ableist critiques. And she, too, is destined to meet Geralt.
Ciri and Yennefer’s storylines owe far, far more to that throney-gamey strand of expensive fantasy storytelling than does Geralt’s: Ciri gets the pageantry, court intrigue and charging armies, while Yennefer gets the squalid, neglected upbringing that sets up her embrace of power. She’s also naked a lot, as are a number of other female characters, because that’s still how these shows work I’d thought the egregious use of nudity in the first episode was the show’s way of commenting on that particular affectation of fantasy television, but it turns out it was just some boobs.
Yes, these are very much classic tropes of fantasy novels, and Sapkowski’s series was nearly wrapped up by the time George R.R. Martin’s began. But Witcher showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is clearly following the visual blueprint set out in HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s work. There’s also a great deal of brutal, bloody violence, because that is also what David Benioff and D.B. Weiss taught audiences to expect from escapist fantasy shows.
There’s also a distinct lack of humour in Ciri and Yennefer’s storylines, whereas Geralt is allowed to puncture the heaviness of myths and legends, and even seems to enjoy doing so. Not that he can’t take things seriously, mind you in the classic antihero style, he’s very good at suiting up and throwing down when the situation demands it.
And once again we get to appreciate Henry Cavill being really, really good in a project that has very little time for what he’s doing. As in Mission: Impossible – Fallout and all three of his Superman movies, The Witcher isn’t terribly interested in the actor’s easy charm and the impressive physicality of his performance it’s mostly content to use him as an action figure, pitting him against a series of digital creatures that throw him around like a rag doll.
And even then, he still projects a certain exasperated competence as Geralt, who’s been doing this long enough that he’s developed more sympathy for the monsters he hunts than for the townsfolk who hire him. From under the platinum-blond wig and the amber contact lenses, he’s working to show us that Geralt, the mutant outsider, is a better person than the people he serves.
It’s a performance destined to be overlooked, and it’s a shame… but maybe in the already-ordered second season, The Witcher will do more with it. That’d be nice.