Review: Netflix fantasy series Shadow And Bone walks on the dark side

Ambitious high-fantasy series offers elaborate visuals and a star turn from Jessie Mei Li, but maybe turn the brightness up?


SHADOW AND BONE (Eric Heisserer). All eight episodes available to stream Friday (April 23) on Netflix Canada. Rating: NNN


I will say this for Shadow And Bone: every damn penny of its massive Netflix budget is right up on the screen, though it’s often difficult to appreciate the detail in the sets and costumes because the show is darker than that last battle in Game Of Thrones. I watched it in 4K and HDR, but that just made the shadows even murkier. This is a dark, dark, dark show, in more ways than one.

Adapted from the Grishaverse novels of Leigh Bardugo, Netflix’s big-budget high-fantasy adventure stars Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov, a young military cartographer who discovers she’s the legendary Sun Summoner – able to manifest light and possibly even wield it as weapon – and thus the one destined to deliver her kingdom from the tyranny of the dark barrier they call The Fold. But all Alina wants is to be back with her lifelong friend and fellow grunt Mal (Archie Renaux).

Showrunner Eric Heisserer (Bird Box) does a decent job of reconfiguring Bardugo’s densely knitted world into a well-paced episodic structure, though the trend for parallel narratives means the show must split its attention between Alina’s Chosen One storyline and a convoluted side story involving a gang of young criminals lifted from another of Bardugo’s books. I’m aware that Kaz Brekker is a big deal in the Grishaverse, but as Pennyworth’s Freddy Carter plays him here he’s just kind of a sneering tool, snapping at friends and foes alike and only occasionally hinting at the complex, crafty plotter he’s supposed to be. Amita Suman and Kit Young are having a much better time as Kaz’s associates, the stealthy ex-assassin Inej and the carefree gunslinger Jesper.

The two storylines don’t sync up as well as they should – one is almost lyrical, the other frantic – but the actors are always engaging, breaking up the potential stiffness of the material with lively performances and the odd flash of charm.

Li in particular feels like a proper star, holding the story’s emotional centre as Alina is yanked from comfortable anonymity and repackaged as a people’s hero regardless of whether that’s something she actually wanted. And the relatively unknown actor, until now best known for a small role alongside Gillian Anderson and Lily James in a recent London stage production of All About Eve, more than holds her own opposite veteran character actors like Zoe Wanamaker and Kevin Eldon, and finds an interesting rapport with Ben Barnes’s ambiguous mentor figure, known to some as The Darkling. (And yes, it’s a little much, but I have a feeling Barnes is having fun with that.)

All of this plays out in the expensively realized alternate world of Ravka, which is styled heavily after Imperial Russia in clever and intricate ways. The production detail and costume design are truly impressive, though it’s a little frustrating that Shadow And Bone does its best to bury everyone’s work under an oppressive patina of grays and blacks, even in daylight sequences. We get it, Shadow And Bone is dark… though when it does let the light in, it’s awfully impressive.

@normwilner

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