Netflix’s latest overstuffed fantasy adaptation is a challenge for viewers’ time & patience.
Visiting the source material before watching an adaptation can be a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, going into a viewing experience as fresh and free of expectations as possible typically feels like the best-case scenario. On the other hand, some level of awareness can make it easier to follow the early installments of, say, a six-episode Netflix series.
To be a little less opaque, not being familiar with The Letter for the King’s source material — the Dutch 60’s fantasy novel De brief voor de Koning — makes the early goings of the Netflix series a bit of a slog. The first episode of newcomer showrunner Will Davies’s effort in particular feels very nearly inert. Too many characters are introduced with little clarity on their back story, and there’s too much switching from location to location without giving us a true feel for the world. It’s so much setup to achieve so little connection with the audience.
However, as Tiuri (Amir Wilson) begins to undergo the trials of becoming a knight more in earnest in episode 2, the world starts to take shape. More important, the show starts to develop a personality. In addition to finally separating Tiuri out as our lead, the supporting characters snap into relief. We see the mix of nobility, arrogant callousness, and underhandedness of Tiuri’s adopted father and namesake Sir Tiuri the Valiant (David Wenham). Sir Fantumar’s (Omid Djalili) thirst for power and disgust for others starts to reveal itself. Additionally, characters who ultimately do not figure stronger into the narrative become easier to spot.
The real key moment, however, is when the follow knight cadets begin to organize. King is never better than when it focuses on the petty jealousies, silly squabbles, and surprising courage of the teenage characters. While Wilson is largely stuck in Tiuri with a reactive cipher, his young costars get strong, even if they are sometimes predictable, beats to play. The knight cadets Iona (Thaddea Graham), Arman (Islam Bouakkaz), Jussipo (Jonah Lees), Foldo (Jack Barton) plus Piak (Nathanael Saleh), a younger hanger-on and Lavinia (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), a girl tired of her safe comfortable life develop a kind of John Hughes in medieval fantasy vibe. The stakes are higher but the sense of chemistry is undeniable. And with that chemistry comes a sense of playfulness and emotion that gives the show a much-needed burst of energy.
Not being familiar with The Letter for the King’s source material makes the early goings of the Netflix series a bit of a slog.
In fact, they become so central and so worthy of attention, things outside their orbit suffer in comparison. Prince Viridian (Gijs Blom), the story’s high antagonist, remains so physically remote from the teens that he becomes a purely abstract threat. It’s clear he’s bad, it’s clear he is dangerous, but he’s so far away. Blom delivers a good performance, but he might as well be in a different world for how disconnected he seems.
However, the twin threats in pursuit of the band of young adventurers provide plenty of tension. Sir Fantumar’s desire to end Tiuri to ensure a higher place in Viridian’s favor — and his lack of care for his son’s life in the bargain — gives the danger a strong personal investment. The other group in the hunt is just straight-up scary, as best personified by their seemingly sociopathic leader (Jim High).
The Letter has large ambitions on a streaming budget. This results in some ill-advised effects work on a flock of unpleasant birds and almost any time fire is on-screen, but overall, the show plays well within its constraints. It is especially good in terms of picking and exploring physical locations and its use of light. This is a watch with the lights off kind of show because of how much darkness it utilizes. However, it is always with a point and frequently serves to raise the blood pressure and the sense of just how out of their league our young protagonists are.
As with so many Netflix shows, this one carries the axiom, “it gets good if you stick with it.” The chemistry of the young actors makes the journey past that first episode of The Letter for the King worth it. However, that opener is dire enough, one could certainly appreciate a viewer simply deciding to move on to their next binge watch.
The Letter for the King arrives on Netflix starting March 20th.