The Witcher season 1 review: Netflix's Henry Cavill-starrer falls just short of counting among high fantasy greats
The Witcher sets a lot of store by destiny. One might have prophesised that the show too — with its source material and huge fan following — was destined for greatness. As of now however, the Netflix adaptation, while promising, has quite some road to travel before it fulfils that fate.
This post contains some spoilers for The Witcher season 1. For a spoiler-free guide, click here.
What might a high fantasy tale offer us in these troubling times?
A portrait of a world in flux, the end of a way of life, and how individuals navigate a society that feels increasingly unfamiliar and hostile.
The Witcher, which released on Netflix on Friday, 20 December, delves into these ideas. It also offers a fairly engaging adventure.
Based on Andrzej Sapkowski's books (which have so far been spun off into a video game, and a Polish language film and series), The Witcher season 1 sets up the world of The Continent — the realm where the events described in these stories take place, made up of many (oft warring) mediaeval kingdoms, where powerful mages guide rulers, where elves (the original inhabitants of the land) have been subjected to a brutal ethnic cleansing and seen their history erased, where dark monsters are slayed by a band of highly trained and reviled mutants known as witchers.
The margins of this world are occupied by the last surviving members of several races: dragons, elves, witchers too, among whom our hero — Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) — is one.
The bulk of the eight episodes in season 1 are drawn from the short story collection, The Last Wish, in which Geralt recuperated from near grievous wounds at a temple, even as we dip into his recollections of several adventures. We are introduced to his friend and travelling companion, the bard Jaskier (played in the Netflix series by Joey Batey), and also the mage Yennefer (Anya Chalotra).
To heighten the dramatic tension and layer this narrative, The Witcher season 1 also draws on elements from Sword Of Destiny (the second short story collection) and Blood of Elves (the first full-length novel in the saga), in the form of Princess Cirilla (or Ciri, played by Freya Allan) of Cintra, bound to Geralt by a twist of destiny.
The narrative spans three timelines, neatly moving back and forth among them: the distant past (tracing Yennefer's ascent as a mage), the somewhat recent past (tracing Geralt's journeys across the Continent, along with Jaskier, and his explosive meeting with Yennefer), and the present (in which we see Ciri fleeing Cintra after its destruction at the hands of the armies of Nilfgaard, and her attempts to find Geralt).
Geralt battles various kinds of evil through this story, but the 'villain' whose shadow looms darkest over the present, is the kingdom of Nilfgaard. Once considered a splintered southern backwater not worthy of the notice of the richer Northern kingdoms, Nilfgaard has since found a fanatical new ruler, who wishes to bring all of the Continent under his control. Nilfgaard also wants the entire realm to bow down to the power they're converts to — the White Flame. And even more importantly, they want Ciri, because of certain powers she possesses.
The showdown with Nilfgaard sets up the big battle pieces and showdown of season 1, but it is in its smaller skirmishes that The Witcher does best. For instance, episode 1, based on one of Geralt's more poignant missions ('The Lesser Evil'), hums along in a fairly non-memorable way until he puts his swords into action against a band of mercenaries. An almost balletic sequence ensues, which ends on the sort of troubling, no-winners-here note Sapkowski's stories drive home. Another spectacular sequence is when Geralt must confront a striga, a particularly vicious monster, who proves near impossible to subdue.
Whenever Geralt picks up his swords, you're transfixed by the happenings on screen. Henry Cavill's physicality is perfect for Geralt's, as is the gruff yet compassionate persona he slips into. But when he isn't on screen, The Witcher season 1 can be a bit of a hit and miss.
The Geralt-Jaskier and Ciri storylines are far more assured in treatment than the Yennefer segments, which are muddled, not all that exciting, and feature some of the more underwhelming actors/characters of this adaptation.
The Witcher can also give in to the genre's tackier instincts. This is especially evident in episode 5 — when Geralt and Yennefer first cross paths and must fight a djinn — which is poorly executed and requires actress Anya Chalotra to contort her nearly naked body into unnatural positions for large amounts of screen time for some reason. The Geralt-Yennefer chemistry — so central to the story — isn't very convincing and Geralt's pairing with the princess-mercenary Renfri (from episode 1, played by Emma Appleton, striking even in a brief role) or his bond with Jaskier make for much better viewing. The undertone of resignation that runs through Sapkowski's rendering of the same tale is entirely missing from the episode.
In fact, the best qualities of Sapkowski's stories — the dry humour as seen in the banter between Jaskier and Geralt, the melancholy that pervades this fantasy, the dark no-happy-ending twists on common fairy-tale tropes, the casual violence — are not fully realised in this Netflix adaptation. That's an absolute pity, because they would have made The Witcher so much more than it presently is.
Season 1's patchy run, however, ends with episode 6, which epitomises the best of what The Witcher can achieve. The somewhat cliched motif of a dragon hunt, with all the hallmarks of a mediaeval 'Quest' (a trope it also pokes fun of) evolves into an introspection of what it means to be the last of a line, and the struggle to establish one's legacy.
From this point on, The Witcher is on firmer footing, leading into a finale that will have you anticipating the continuation of this tale.
The Witcher sets great store by destiny. One might have prophesised that the show too — with its source material and huge fan following — was destined for greatness. As of now however, the Netflix adaptation, while promising, has quite some road to travel before it fulfils that fate.
Rating: ★★★ and a 1/2
The Witcher is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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