Great Britain

The Witcher, review: Netflix's painfully transparent attempt to fill the Game of Thrones void with more blood and boobs

Many years from now in the People’s Republic of Los Angeles, a group of writers will convene with the sole purpose of creating the next prestige televisual epic. And perhaps, as they sit in their office overlooking the twin statues of Greta Thunberg and Andrew Yang, their minds will alight upon the great struggle for fantasy supremacy. On the one hand, House HBO: a great lineage slowly brought to its knees. On the other, House Starz: a plucky underdog, never surrendering against enemies of superior coinage and regard. And then, finally, House Netflix: a late empire, crossing the seas with unlimited resources and little on its mind but high fantastical hegemony… 

So enters The Witcher, Netflix’s painfully transparent attempt to fill the Game of Thrones void with more blood and boobs. The series, adapted from the books by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski (though better known to English-speaking audiences from its video-game adaptations), follows Geralt of Rivia (played by Henry Cavill, a man who somehow manages to look simultaneously like he’s both wrought from pure granite and sculpted from clay), a semi-supernatural beast hunter who is shunned by society (despite being about 6ft 5in and looking like, well, Henry Cavill).

Around Geralt, the world is crumbling. Princess Ciri (Freya Allan) is on the run from the Nilfgaardians. Meanwhile, Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a young woman with spinal abnormalities, is being enlisted into an order of witches overseen by a wild-eyed Lars Mikkelsen and dead-eyed MyAnna Buring. All their paths will cross as the series progresses.

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The debut episode – “The End’s Beginning” – opens with Geralt slaying some anonymous water demon and carting its corpse into a nearby town. It’s gloomy and gothic, almost with a touch of humour (”Today isn’t your day, is it?” Geralt tells a maimed deer, moments before killing it). It is a taste of a show The Witcher is scared to be. From there, the show foregoes most opportunities to embrace its own absurdity or make a joke of its earnestness. Within minutes we meet Princess Renfri (Emma Appleton) and the wheels of plot start grinding, the actors around Cavill over-annunciating like they’re doing Shakespeare rather than a video-game adaptation. 

Still, at the heart of The Witcher is Geralt. Cavill – that love child of The Thing and Morph – has a naturally screen-easy charisma and sense of comic timing that make his sequences more than (though not by much) bearable to watch. His physicality in the myriad fight sequences is a thing to behold, and the plangent rumble of his vocal performance will have you dousing your TV in Calpol. Yet, despite his role being pre-eminently titular, by the second episode he has surrendered much of his screentime to the stories of Ciri and Yennefer.

Ciri is the heir to the throne of Cintra, a kingdom that is sacked in the first episode by the villainous, but completely under-developed, Nilfgaardians. Because The Witcher’s fantasy is high where Game of Thrones’ was low (magic and monsters abound and there is no sense of their world as analogous to our own), it is a struggle for the uninitiated to be thrown headfirst into a turbulent new world, without keys to unlocking its politics or geography. There is a feeling of being given a board game with a challenging number of pieces, without any hint of instructions.

While Ciri is on the run, Yennefer is being inducted into evil Hogwarts, where young women are verbally abused, have their hands withered to ash, or are inexplicably turned into eels, all in the hope that they will harness their magical powers. Yennefer is a hard character to like: she’s whining, selfish and, due to some dodgy prosthetics, always sounds like she has a mouth full of cotton wool. Due to an unfortunate liaison with a bloke who looks like he’s made from CGI, it is revealed that Yennefer has elven blood, making her as much of an outcast as Geralt. Of course, in this world of busting corsets and rippling abs, Yennefer doesn’t stay disabled for long: she is given an oddly titillating glow-up by Julian Rhind-Tutt’s preening magical obstetrician. 

Anya Chalotra’s performance as Yennefer is, sadly, just one of a number of quite grating turns. Joey Batey plays Jaskier, a bard who accompanies Geralt and is so annoying that you will mentally beg for his death (”There I go again just delivering exposition,” he says at one point, in a bafflingly solitary moment of meta-commentary). Anna Shaffer’s Triss, a fan favourite character, is also cringe-inducing in the seriousness with which she delivers very silly lines. A show where fight choreography and graphic body horror are done with so much panache is begging for performances that embrace the chaos.

If any of this description has lost you, it’s the fault of the show. Like Game of Thrones or Outlander, The Witcher is serving two masters – an audience transferring loyalties from other fantasy TV shows, and an audience already deeply committed to the Witcher lore. The latter group – as we are seeing from Star Wars fans – is a more vociferously critical caucus, and in pandering to them, The Witcher is a messy tangle of plotlines in a world underdeveloped to the point of obscurity. The experience is not unlike playing a video game, where deaths, diversions and reboots leave you constantly unsure of your exact position in the narrative. Sadly, for The Witcher, and House Netflix, their offering lacks even that modicum of fun.