Starter for 10: what links the Latin work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Old French writing of Raoul de Houdenc, and the Middle High German poetry of Hartmann von Aue? The answer, of course, is the legend of King Arthur. Indeed, the Arthurian myth links the creative output of an almost endless web of people, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to US director Antoine Fuqua, and now the commissioners at ITV, whose new adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles arrives in the form of The Winter King.
Britain, the fifth century. The island’s squabbling tribes, led by King Uther Pendragon (Eddie Marsan), are failing to repel the Saxon threat. When the king’s son and heir dies, needlessly, in battle, the finger of blame falls on his bastard son, Arthur (Iain De Caestecker). “You are the son of a whore,” Uther screams, lashing out at the battle-bruised Arthur. “Coveting, begging and conniving, just like your mother.” And so, Arthur is sent off to an exile recommended by his mentor, Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White). On his tramp into the wilderness, he encounters a death pit – scores of bodies impaled on giant spikes – where one small voice calls for help. Rescued by Arthur, raised by Merlin, this child will grow up to be Derfel (Stuart Campbell), through whose eyes The Winter King unfolds.
There is something low rent about The Winter King. There are never more than one or two horses on screen at a time, the landscapes all look more like the South Downs than rugged Northern Ireland or Iceland, and the sets fall into the trap of thinking that fifth-century Britons lived in medieval ruins. The story, which is a loose reimagining of the Arthurian legend, also flirts with moral iffiness. “There is evil in him,” Merlin proclaims when the baby Mordred is born with a disfigured foot. “He will bring death and ruin to the kingdom.” But the biggest issue is an absence of charisma. Marsan chews the scenery as Uther and Simon Merrells is suitably venomous as the evil Gundleus, but more problematic are the show’s central trio. De Caestecker’s Arthur, Campbell’s Derfel and Ellie James as druidess Nimue all struggle to imbue their silly material with much gravitas. And following in the footsteps of actors like Patrick Stewart, Eric Idle and Ben Kingsley, Martello-White’s Merlin is, frankly, the most boring incarnation of the character I’ve seen committed to screen.
All the same, aficionados of Outlander and its ilk will find much to enjoy in The Winter King. The rough edges of Cornwell’s novels – including some of the sexual violence – have been sanded down, and the violence is mostly bloodless. And compared with the BBC’s Doctor Who-esque saga, Merlin, the production design and cinematography are positively lavish. Late-pagan Britain (“The gods are gone, little druidess,” hisses Gundleus) is a great setting for a saga. It’s just a shame that, rather than anything new, or real, we are getting yet another retelling of a story that has been told over and over, for a thousand years.
In order to reinvent the wheel – which was very much the iPhone 15 Pro of the Arthurian period – you need to bring either a truly fresh interpretation or stunning design. David Lowery’s 2021 film, The Green Knight, a retelling of the Gawain legend, managed to do both; The Winter King achieves neither. The result is a serviceable yet underwhelming middlebrow epic, which adds little to an already overcrowded canon.