The books were revered. The game was venerated. The question was however, could The Witcher successfully transition to live action? Or would it fall victim to the curse of video game adaptations like so many others before? With a Netflix budget, a Hollywood superstar and two lots of source material to draw from, things were looking promising…
So you probably know where this is going. I mean you’ve seen the star rating right? Some have said it’s a harsh score and in many ways I can see that. On the surface this show has a lot going for it, but it’s not just about the objective here. It’s about the full package. From the emotional impact to the action sequences, the music to the set design, the dialogue to the performances and everything in between. When you consider all of those aspects and remove any biases you have for the Witcher franchise, I think 2 stars is pretty fair. Put it this way – If you’re looking for a show that you can stick on after a long day and half watch while playing candy crush… this is it.
That’s not to say however that the show was designed this way. It’s ambitions are actually a lot greater than that and for the first fantasy to hit our screens in the absence of Game of Thrones, it’s a brave new approach to the genre and certainly breaks some new ground. Where GoT was principally made up of human characters with the occasionally dragon or mage, The Witcher is littered with fascinating fauna of all shapes, sizes colours and degrees of threat. It also delves into deeper magical ideas including The Witcher himself displaying his signature quick spells in the midst of hand to hand action sequences and the great council of mages debating how best to influence to the affairs of men.
Though there are plenty of interesting ideas explored in the 8 episode season, none are given the proper level of attention and patience to really compel and sadly this is where The Witcher really lets itself down. Firstly, the structure follows three distinct timelines, except they aren’t distinct. It’s left to the viewer to somehow piece together random bits of dialogue here and there to try and make sense of what’s going on. What ever happened to a good, old fashioned ’10 years earlier’ caption? Then there’s the individual characters within each timeline. To once again make the GoT comparison, (it’s the easiest one to make at this stage) The Witcher rushes through character development where GoT takes its time. Within the course of a couple of episodes, characters can quite literally transform with the most paper thin of motivations seeded through brutally contrived, on-the-nose sequences. Put that up against Arya Stark’s 8-season character arc and it pales in comparison.
Onto the performances. Frankly, Cavil puts in a mediocre shift. He’s clearly a fan of the franchise and he was vocal about how committed he was to making this project a success which all well and good but a show like this needs someone with charisma and magnetism at its centre and Cavil simply doesn’t bring that to this interpretation of The Witcher. It’s a shame. He was supremely underserved as Superman and this was his chance to prove he had more acting chops than he was able to display in the DC universe. Unfortunately his jaded attitude comes across as abrasive and unlikable, his tenderness lacks context and his speaking voice is just painful to watch. Never has a face matched a voice less.
The central cast overall don’t drop the ball in terms of performance and the two other leads Ciri and Yennefer (Freya Allen and Anya Chalotra) are solid, Chalotra in particular showing convincing growth in her character over the course of many years. Other notable performances come from the heavyweight female characters Queen Calanthe and Tissaia (Anna Shaffer and MyAnna Buring) and it’s good to see such a densely female cast. The material itself though, gives them little to work with and there’s only so much an actor can do with poorly written dialogue.
Where The Witcher really sings though is in the action. This is the one saving grace for me personally as I love a nice fluid, well choreographed action set-piece and episode one deliveries arguably the best one of the season. Cavil is undoubtedly a powerful, physical force as he carves his way through henchman after henchman effortlessly swinging a sword as big as an average 10 year old, occasionally utilising magic to clear a path to his target. The sequence in question takes place in a single steady-shot, beautifully executed. The choreography is like ballet, and the props and special effects do a superb job in composing believable, visceral gore. It’s one of the best sword fighting scenes i’ve ever seen and for that alone the Witcher goes some way into redeeming itself.
Ruling – I said at the top of this review that I had to consider all aspects that make up this show and rate it accordingly. Sadly, a top draw action sequence doesn’t equate to a 5-star masterpiece and don’t get me wrong here I wish it did because I wanted this show to succeed. I wanted it to be the next Game of Thrones and who knows, maybe it could still be. It supposedly accrued a vast viewership and season 2 is already underway. For me however, it desperately lacks in emotional heft, I have no loyalty or affection for these characters (in fact most of them irritate me), the score is unremarkable and the budget is painfully obvious. All in all, the weaknesses significantly outweigh the strengths and The Witcher needs to make some serious improvements if I am to return for the next go around.