Starring Henry Cavill, Netflix's new fantasy saga wants to be the next TV blockbuster. But it’s badly-paced, convoluted, and features a blank lead performance, writes Stephen Kelly.

Netflix's The Witcher is a TV show born from the most bitter of marriages. Starring Henry Cavill as grizzled monster hunter Geralt of Rivia, it is adapted from the fantasy books of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski - yet the Witcher franchise is undoubtably known to most people through the non-canon video game sequels. This is a quirk that famously infuriates Sapkowski, who never foresaw what a success the games would become. Hence why, when he sold the licence in the early 00s, he demanded a one-off lump sum rather than a percentage of the profits. 2015's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, considered by many to be one of the greatest role-playing games ever made, has to date sold 20 million units alone. There has since been legal action.

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This tension between the legitimacy of the source material and the popularity of the video games is something that showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, known for her work on Netflix’s Marvel shows Daredevil and The Defenders, has played down in interviews. If you're a fan of the games, she argues, then there's no reason why you wouldn't be a fan of the TV show adapting the books that inspired the  games. And this is true. The Witcher's problem is not to do with the richness of Sapkowski's books, nor the baggage it carries from being associated with an RPG. It is that while the books ground you in Geralt's head, and the video games ground you in Geralt's world, the TV show does neither. That's due to both a jarringly paced, convoluted script, and a colourless lead performance from Cavill, which often leaves the impression that he’s the handsomest cosplayer at Comic Con.

Geralt would present a challenge for any actor. In Sapkowski’s books, he’s cast as a sort of sad wandering ronin: perpetually in seek of work, shunned wherever he goes. He is a Witcher, a dying breed of monster slayer who. through a series of mutations, has attained superhuman strength and agility – although at the apparent cost of emotions.

On the page, this translates to a strong silent type with a deadpan sense of humour and a surprisingly rich interior life; a man who is sensitive, vulnerable and conflicted. On screen, however, Cavill struggles to summon any of that depth to the fore; instead coming across as blank and monotonous. The phoney styling of Geralt also doesn’t help. Cavill wears yellow contacts and, very obviously, some sort of white Legolas-style wig; he has also been saddled with the unfortunate task of doing a hysterically unnatural deep, guttural voice, which sounds like an impersonation of LEGO Batman. If you had come to The Witcher knowing nothing about its origins, you would be baffled at why someone would decide to make a TV show centred around this character.

Yet the problems of The Witcher go far beyond Cavill, who can only work with the material he’s given. The problems are soaked into the very bones of the adaptation itself.

It’s a show that is impatient to get to the big stuff, that already wants to have been a Game of Thrones-style success.

The first two books in Sapkowski’s series, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, are structured as a series of loosely connected short stories, with each one involving a different monster or problem Geralt has to overcome (like, for example, the Striga, a cursed baby that has grown into a monstrous teenager). These short stories start out fairly self-contained, but do gradually introduce characters and elements that – in future books – build to a larger, more complex saga. Namely Jaskier (played by Joey Batey in the show), a womanising bard who sometimes tags along with Geralt on his adventures; the sorceress Yennifer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), who becomes a turbulent love interest; and Ciri (Freya Allan), a princess with mysterious powers who falls under his protection.

A manic bombardment of spectacle

This, however, is not how the show approaches it. Instead, Hissrich opts to split each of the eight episodes equally across three separate storylines: the adventures of Geralt; the origin story of Yennifer, and Ciri’s escape from her war-torn kingdom of Cintra.

It’s a similarly expansive, world-building approach to fantasy storytelling as that adopted by Game of Thrones - the success of which undoubtedly had a hand in The Witcher getting made. But Game of Thrones worked because it spent its first season introducing you to Westeros through small, simple character-led stories (the fancy southerners are coming to the no-nonsense northern village), before widening its scope.

Nothing builds in The Witcher. The first couple of episodes (critics have received five out of eight) are a manic bombardment of fantasy lingo, locations and spectacle that are simply meaningless without context. Here is one particularly joyless exchange:

“I saw the Wraiths of Morhogg over the channel this morning… They’re an omen of war.”

“The north has been at war since Nilfgaard took Ebbing. If legend is true, the Wild Hunt’s years behind the curve”

“The Nilfgardian force crossed the Amell Pass”

“Heading to Sodden if they’re smart. And if not, 50 of your Skelligen ships are on the way.”

This is a show that already wants to have been a Game of Thrones-style success; that hopes that if it tells you enough times that this is a large layered fantasy world with kingdoms and characters you care about, then you'll start to believe it. This impatience to get to the big stuff is why The Witcher can often feel like two shows happening at once: the one-man monster-of-the-week episodic adventure, and the big binge-friendly fantasy ensemble epic.

What this means in practice is that the early episodes tend to have a strange, stunted, staccato rhythm. The pilot, for example, cuts around every five minutes between the dense fantasy world politics of Cintra’s war with invading empire Nilfgaard; and the story of Geralt arriving in a small town called Blaviken, where he’s caught up in a feud between sorcerer Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen) and warrior princess Renfri (Emma Appleton). Both threads have little room to breathe – characters speak in broad exposition, no one is developed enough to truly invest in, and a kiss seemingly springs from nowhere.

This is not to say that the series does not show flashes of potential. Episode three, which focuses on the aforementioned Striga, is the closest The Witcher's first five episodes come to both a compelling mystery – with Geralt being tasked to investigate a royal scandal in order to lift a curse – and genuine horror. Just take the image of the tall dark skeletal form of the Striga, stalking around its abandoned gothic castle, screeching its way towards Geralt, dragging its umbilical cord on the floor (cursed baby, remember?). Or the ensuing fight, which is as brutal and gruesome as it is elegant and stylish. A feat that can perhaps be credited to Game of Thrones director Alik Sakharov, who is responsible for maintaining the show’s Lovecraftian aesthetic.

Yennifer’s frequent toplessness is evidence that The Witcher has certainly not toned down the most gratuitously horny elements of the original books

It’s no coincidence that the point where The Witcher finally starts to pick up pace is in its fifth hour, with the first meeting between Geralt and Anya Chalotra’s Yennifer: an episode which not only merges two storylines, but which gives Cavill the chance to bounce off someone his character actually has chemistry with, to do more with Geralt than just grunt. Yennifer is one of the most engaging parts of The Witcher; a fact that is largely down to young British breakout star Chalotra.

Unlike the books, where we meet Yennifer the first time Geralt meets her, the adaptation drills down on a throwaway line about her having been born a hunchback. And so we explore her journey from being a poor farm girl, whose father sold her to a sorceress for less than the price of a pig, to harnessing her magical abilities at some sort of goth version of Hogwarts, to eventually becoming the untrustworthy sorceress of Geralt’s dreams/nightmares.

This Yennifer storyline is not without its own share of issues. A sequence in which she has her disability magically ‘fixed’ for instance, before walking into a ball as a radiant vision of conventional attractiveness, is fraught with tone-deaf connotations. And the character’s frequent toplessness is evidence that, despite being adapted by a female showrunner, The Witcher has certainly not toned down the most gratuitously horny elements of Sapkowski’s books. But regardless, Chalotra sells it all: tragedy, naivety, charisma, confidence and power.

It’s just a shame the rest of the adaptation cannot rise to meet her.

★★☆☆☆

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