Review by James Lindorf
The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski first appeared in the mid-1980s in a series of short stories in a Polish science fiction and fantasy magazine. In the last 35 five years or so, The Witcher has gone on to become a best-selling series of books, three highly acclaimed video games, and as of December 20th, 2019, a Netflix original series.
The Continent is a vast world where humans, elves, witchers, mages, and monsters battle to survive and thrive, where accepting the lesser evil is often your only choice. The series will center around three characters, Geralt of Rivia, the legendary white wolf, one of the few monster-hunting witchers left in the Continent. Ciri, a princess without a kingdom and on the run for her life after Cintra, her home, was destroyed. Yennefer, an abused and neglected young woman, is given a second chance at life when she is taken in by a powerful mage. They will all be brought together as the era of the sword and axe is nigh, and the Nilfgaardian Empire is moving to claim the Continent as their own. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel), as Geralt of Rivia, leads the cast alongside Anya Chalotra (The ABC Murders) as Yennefer and Freya Allan (Into The Badlands) as Ciri. The supporting cast includes Jodhi May (Game of Thrones) as Calanthe, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (Fortitude) as Eist, Adam Levy (Knightfall, Snatch) as Mousesack, and MyAnna Buring (Ripper Street, Kill List) as Tissaia.
As someone who never read the books or played the games and only knows of the Witcher through pop culture, I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this new series. I knew that Geralt was a monster hunter, so at a minimum, I was expecting some quality action. Especially with the casting of Cavill, I knew he could handle whatever they asked of him after seeing him in Man of Steel and Mission Impossible: Fallout. So, the only question left was if the story would be enough to keep me interested, or was this a failed attempt by Netflix to have their own Game of Thrones. There are plenty of ups and downs to get into, but season one gets an overall pass from me. The biggest disappointment is having to wait over a year for the adventure to continue as Variety reports that the second season is scheduled to begin production sometime in the early part of 2020.
The fight choreography was very well crafted by Wolfgang Stegemann and a large number of stuntmen and women. It is mostly swordplay, but occasionally fists or another weapon make an appearance. The fights are decidedly brutal with nary a drop of blood, CGI or otherwise, being sparred. The most shockingly vicious moment happens early in the season when Geralt is fighting, and his sword gets stuck halfway through the head of an enemy. Instead of calling it a job well done and removing his sword, he strikes the end of his sword, driving it upwards and destroying the skull. The most inventive choreography is for a mage who is a former soldier, the combination of those two skills allows them to be very creative with his attacks.
Another gold star should be awarded to the costume designer Tim Aslam. Every outfit is beautiful and managed to be familiar but unique enough to belong to its own world. The best of the best includes almost any dress made for Yennefer and Geralt’s standard armor. The detail is terrific and builds on their sex appeal, and power, will imbuing a bit of regalness into the pair of mutant misfits.
Most of the acting is well done. Sometimes lines thud like so many dead soldiers, and occasionally it is the line itself and others it is the delivery. Anya Chalotra gives the most robust performance as Yennefer. While she has fewer scenes than Cavill, she is more prone to outbursts of emotions, and her evolution through the first season is the most interesting part. Cavill is a good Geralt, but I still struggle with the choice that was made for Geralt’s voice. I would have preferred something closer to his typical timbre and less Christian Bale’s Batman or Christopher Lambert’s Raiden.
The biggest flaw of the season is its pacing. It is a mix of an epic movie with a monster of week network tv show. It makes for plenty of exciting moments that can be dramatic, action-packed, or occasionally horrific, but they are too loosely connected for the majority of the season. It is not until the later moments of the penultimate episode that things start to come together in any meaningful way. It is a good thing that destiny is inevitable because it takes so long to arrive; you would question the proclamations if it was about anything else.
Netflix’s The Witcher is not the next Game of Thrones, at least not yet. Season one starts with Cavill as medieval James Bond, moving from mission to mission, bedding beautiful woman, and never really facing his demons. It ends on the brink of something much bigger, something controlled by destiny that will need at least the eight episodes of season 2 to finish. Hopefully, like so many of their characters, showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich and the writers can evolve and add control to the chaos to make Geralt become the legend he is meant to be.
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