The Witcher review: Henry Cavill and Netflix’s Game of Thrones replacement is lumbering and laborious
Cast - Henry Cavill, Freya Allan, Anya Chalotra
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a streamer in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an epic fantasy series to piggyback on the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Over the years, several networks have tried to fill a GoT-shaped void with their own offerings, some of which, like Outlander, have been relatively successful, while others, like FX’s The Bastard Executioner, had their throats slit after just one season. But with GoT having wrapped up its run recently, the battle for the crown has intensified once again.
Netflix will have a second shot at taking the throne (after the ill-fated Marco Polo) with its big-budget TV adaptation of the popular multimedia franchise The Witcher, due out on November 20. Despite being more popular among English-speaking audiences for the very successful series of video games that The Witcher has inspired, the television show is instead being billed as an adaptation of the original Polish novels. Comparisons to GoT will be inevitable, but as it turns out, not entirely unwarranted.
Watch The Witcher trailer here
For starters, the first two episodes of the series have been directed by Alik Sakharov, who previously helmed episodes of not only Game of Thrones, but also Marco Polo. And while a director’s role in a show such as this is hardly the most important element in its creation — that responsibility rests on the shoulders of the showrunner — it isn’t entirely insignificant.
But the one thing that The Witcher has that Game of Thrones was severely lacking, at least in its initial seasons, is star power. Henry Cavill plays Geralt of Rivia, a mercenary bounty hunter with magic powers, known for his shock of white hair and sullen disposition. He eats monsters for breakfast and venison for brunch. He communicates mostly monosyllabic grunts but is just as skilled at verbal takedowns as he is at swordplay.
One fight sequence towards the end of episode one is quite special, seemingly achieved in one unbroken take and with Cavill visibly involved, instead of a stunt double. It is, however, the only action sequence in the first four episodes worth note. The rest of the series is as lumbering and inelegant as its protagonist.
After establishing the multiple storylines and various central characters (with moderate success) in episode one, The Witcher in subsequent chapters becomes so incoherent that I actively had to read up about the lore to understand the rudiments of the plot. This isn’t an ideal way to watch a show, especially if one isn’t already familiar with the world. This impenetrability makes the show seem exclusive, and not necessarily open to the idea of having new fans. This is certainly not the approach that Game of Thrones, or even the recent (and extremely nerdy) Warcraft film took. There’s discussion about the army of Nilfgaard and talk of gnomes and elves and dwarves. After a point, without adequate context, it all becomes overwhelming.
Conveniently, though, Netflix has released a series of character introduction videos on YouTube, which helped tremendously — not only with regard to character motivations, but also valuable backstory.
There is an interesting tale at the centre of The Witcher, about a young princess whose path has been destined to collide with that of Geralt. It’s the only narrative thread that continues from one chapter to the next, but bafflingly, the show is otherwise extremely episodic, jumping back and forth in time to create a confusing hodgepodge of ideas that never synthesise into a whole.
Perhaps this was done to highlight the influence of Westerns on Geralt as a character; he is, after all, the archetypal solitary hero, ambling in and out of adventures, collecting bounties along the way. But instead of rogue bandits, he’s catching grotesque monsters.
Shots of Cavill, striding along on a horse in stark desert environments, certainly calls to mind old John Ford movies. Had it not been for the incomprehensible storytelling, The Witcher could’ve been quite enjoyable, especially because technically, it’s rather well done. Besides the fight choreography and the creature design, I was rather impressed by the original score, composed by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, who infuse it with Celtic and Nordic influences.
Despite having produced shows such as A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Dark Crystal, The Witcher might just be Netflix’s most elaborate niche project in recent memory.