With its interest in the subversion of high fantasy via bleak ironies, brutal violence and focus on human politics, it would be fair enough to assume that Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher is gunning for the vacuum left by the ending of Game of Thrones. But once it settles into a comfortable rhythm, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s show has more surprises and fun diversions than you might expect.
Named for the profession of the lead character Geralt of Rivia (played with amusing cantankerousness by Henry Cavill), The Witcher follows the solitary, grey-haired monster hunter as he navigates petty human squabbles and earth-shaking developments with equal gruffness and disinterest, even if he can’t help but do the right thing. This attitude is fairly uninteresting until Geralt finds suitable foils (particularly the obnoxious, philandering bard Jaskier, who replaces the book’s Dandelion), but once he does, the show becomes a genuinely pleasurable ride through the stories written by Polish writer Andrej Sapowski.
Though most will be familiar with The Witcher franchise from the popular video games by CD Projekt, Schmidt Hissrich very faithfully adapts her work from ‘The Last Wish’, a collection of short stories by Sapowski that preceded the main ‘Witcher Saga’ series of books (each episode roughly corresponds to one story). That’s not to say there isn’t anything in it for fans of the video game, as Schmidt Hissrich consolidates the details of the book with that tone.
Schmidt Hissrich dedicates equal time to Geralt and the show’s two other leads, following the plight of the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), whose backstory is closer to the book than the game, with mixed results. But one her backstory is out of the way, Yennefer becomes more entertaining to watch as timidness gives way to sharp wit. Between these two stories is that of Ciri, a princess possessing power of untold scale, pursued by a military empire that killed her family and sacked her kingdom.
From the beginning it plays with magic and fantasy tropes with a wink, familiar stories ending in somewhat unexpected, sometimes incredibly bleak places. But it also doesn’t back down from the silliness of the genre, with brightly coloured contact lenses and cursed knights who resemble hedgehogs. Some of the best moments come with Geralt responding to these strange happenings or typical fantasy storylines being violently upended with a well timed utterance of “…fuck”.
Cavill is surprisingly fun to watch even beyond his impressive physique, which the show takes care to note. Though some (maybe even a lot) of it will make eyes roll, it’s all eminently watchable, with a vivid colour pallet, engaging score and fight scenes that alternate between brutal and balletic. It’s even more impressive once the narrative fully plays its hand, and reveals the truth of how the various strands intersect.
In faithfully adapting the book it brings with it some questionable elements, but it at least adapts these tales with a more modern sensibility. That said, it can be a little obtuse in how it lines up its disparate narrative threads to all tell rhyming tales of barbaric patriarchy – though there are some troubling elements that slip through the cracks (though both playing ageless characters, consider the age difference between Cavill and Chalotra).
To her credit, Schmidt Hissrich doesn’t immediately indulge in “sexposition” in the same way Game of Thrones infamously did in its early episodes, though that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of flesh on show – many will be pleased to know that we spend plenty of time with Cavill in a bathtub, though as a whole it shares GoT’s problem of lacking in equal opportunity nudity (so far, at least).
Regardless, between its discussions of prejudice and a colourblind approach to casting, The Witcher feels like’s filling a niche in fantasy storytelling while carving its own path, even if the narrative itself is overly concerned with notions of ‘destiny’.
Published 20 Dec 2019
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