The Winter King review – prepare to witness the medieval absurdity you’ve always desired!
As we approach the middle of December, I find myself wondering where I can find the fun and festive feeling of the dark ages, Arthurian legend, and druidic traditions that I long for this time of year. Where is the sense of adventure and magic that seems to embody the Christmas spirit more than reindeer, famous figures in red hats, or even old episodes of Den and Ange’s divorce?
Reworded: So far, nobody has arrived. I have been trying to cope with my sadness by drinking alcohol. But wait, what is that sound? Could it be the distant noise of horses from the show “Equity” galloping through a fake, frost-covered forest? Are the discarded costumes from “Game of Thrones” being reused on smaller and cheaper sets? Can I hear the opening of wig glue and beard adhesive bottles, indicating the fake medieval world of my imagination? Do I hear the footsteps of actors on cold castle floors, discussing their roles with their agents for the next season of “White Lotus” in Seychelles? I believe I can!
The Winter King has arrived – a screen version of the novel by Bernard Cornwell. It takes a lot of creative liberties with the original Warlord Chronicles, so die-hard fans may be better off re-reading the entire series instead of watching. But for those who are not purists, get comfortable, relax, and prepare for 10 hours of intense battles, ornate robes, pagan rituals, wolf-like creatures, despicable villains, and questionable hairstyles. My old-fashioned bingo card is full and my cup of wassail is overflowing.
Let’s get down to business! The son and rightful heir of Uther Pendragon (played by Eddie Marsan), the ruler of the impressive but humorously-named kingdom of Dumnonia, is killed by the Saxons. How unfortunate! Uther blames his illegitimate son Arthur (played by Iain de Caestecker) for failing to protect his brother on the battlefield and is ready to attack him with a sword. However, Merlin (played by Nathaniel Martello-White) intervenes and suggests banishment as punishment instead. So, Arthur is sent off to Gaul, but not before saving a Saxon slave named Derfel (played by Stuart Campbell) from a deadly pit. (This is not a moment from a crossover between Doctor Who and the legends of King Arthur – Siluria refers to the three kingdoms in south-east Wales that were inhabited by a Celtic tribe, likely from Spain, known as the Silures – but I digress.) Arthur leaves Derfel in the care of Merlin and his apprentice Nimue (played by Ellie James) at Avalon before starting his exile.
Eight years have passed. Derfel has matured, but unfortunately, he now has the worst wig in history. This is problematic because he is in love with Nimue, who has beautiful hair. It seems unlikely that their relationship will work out, especially since Merlin has told her that she must focus on her spiritual gifts instead of a husband and children. Nimue is visibly upset. I suggest she take another look at Derfel’s hair. “Don’t worry, my dear,” I reassure her. “If all else fails, just listen to him speak.” Either Campbell is intentionally paying homage to the chaotic language of the Celtic Britons, or they should have invested more of their budget in a voice coach instead of the wig. It appears that Derfel is from the Welsh-Cornish border in Lanarkshire.
In the first episode, Uther and Queen Norwena (played by Grace Akary) have a new son, which causes Merlin to have a disturbing vision. Uther makes a deal with Gundleus, the Silurian leader and murderer of Derfel’s mother. There is a lot of chaos and strong performances, but some strange choices made by the director. Scenes abruptly blur and there are unnecessary closeups. This oddness reminds us to appreciate the skill of unnoticed directors. ‘Tis the season to be grateful.
Merlin eventually reaches his limit with his constant sense of foreboding and travels to Gaul to retrieve Arthur. To the delight of those in this household, Arthur appears rejuvenated after eight years and appears capable of defeating anyone with just one strike, having washed his face and received an impressive haircut.
What can we expect from the remaining episodes? My dear friends, it will be more of the same! There will be more scenes of intimacy, more displays of aggression, more acts of revenge, more political schemes and power struggles, more impressive performances – some of them top-notch – and more disregard for historical accuracy, because really, who cares? So sit back with a cup of mead and a warm blanket and embrace what you’re being given.
The Winter King is currently airing on ITVX in the United Kingdom and is available for streaming on Stan in Australia.