'The Letter for the King': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
There's a darkness coming. Or something.
3/20/2020

Netflix's YA fantasy adventure pits an introverted outsider against a nefarious prince, with banal results.

In Netflix's YA fantasy action-adventure series The Letter for the King, our young hero Tiuri may not be the mightiest or wiliest squire, but he's got courage. And integrity. And honor. Boy, is he chock-full of honor! You know who else had honor? Poor, headless Ned Stark.

Game of Thrones quite possibly ruined me forever for stories about scrappy little string beans whose heart and brains win against evil forces. After hungrily gobbling up the vast, intricate political intrigue of Westeros, where naive boys die for mere principle while ruthless survivors plunder war-torn states, I have no appetite for yet another formulaic medieval fantasy predicated on moral Chiaroscuro. Sixteen-year-old Tiuri (Amir Wilson), like Biblical David before him or even the Valiant Little Tailor must find his inner virtue to defeat a brutal foe. In this case, a nefarious princeling hellbent on conquering his own father's kingdom. Don't get too lost in the incomprehensible muck of lost magic, ancient prophecies and Chosen One mythos.

Seemingly more inspired by Tonke Dragt's 1962 Dutch novel De brief voor de Koning than directly adapted from it, Letter for the King maintains the basic conceit of its source material, which follows a young boy tasked with delivering a vital message to save his homeland. (A previous film adaptation was released in the Netherlands in 2008.) Despite showrunner Will Davies' best efforts to electrify the stakes with contemporary high-fantasy clichés ranging from sassy maidens to Shamanistic bloodlines, the story remains downright quaint and the climax laughably limp. (The producing team leaves few storytelling tropes behind, including "bury your gays.")

So, what if Tiuri fails his quest? Well, “There’s a darkness coming. A darkness that will take everything.” Good to know. Frankly, Letter for the King is everything The Magicians has destroyed in five seasons of satirizing classic fantasy and the moody grown-ups still obsessed with it. 

Tiuri is one of many eager young pups competing to become knights in the kingdom of Dagonaut. He's a social outcast, an introverted refugee from a genocide that ravaged his exoticized tribal kingdom, and is frequently referred to as "Eviellan scum." His adoptive nobleman father (David Wenham) has such little confidence in the boy, despite his love for him, that he rigs the combat trials for knighthood so that Tiuri can join his fellow squires in a ritualistic nocturnal vigil that will commence their training. During this vigil, the boy is the only one of his cohort to answer a plea for help from a dying rider who is desperate to deliver a letter to the king of Unauwen, a neighboring land. Immediately, Tiuri becomes a target in a stagnant six-episode game of "kill the messenger."

Tiuri bops from helper to faux and back again on this horseback ride to King Favian, all the while evading various groups of bunglers, including his own cohort of indistinguishable teen squires, who are each trying to capture or kill him. Tiuri does not know the contents of the letter, as it's locked inside a booby-trapped cryptex, but the audience is privy to the coup plot from the opening moments of the series. It took me about three episodes to realize there is no twist or mystery in the message he's safeguarding, which killed all semblance of narrative tension. It's mere McGuffin.

Along the way, he reluctantly befriends a conveniently pretty trickster named Lavinia (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, Andy's daughter), nearly gets eviscerated by a power-hungry sorcerer and gains some self-esteem with the help of a sword-fighting monk. Still, Tiuri doesn't seem to actually do a lot, but rather, a lot of stuff is just done to him.

While he's busy plodding along Joseph Campbell's monomyth template, we spend a lot of time with megalomaniacal Prince Viridian (Gijs Blom), the equivalent a high school trench coat guy rebelling against his square dad, and Tiuri's bumbling fellow squires, a group of kids with minimal character development other than "the one with the lute" and the "one with the hair." (Wait, never mind, these are actually the same dude.) There's a near dearth of chemistry or camaraderie between any of them.

Frustratingly, just Iona, the only girl in the unit, has any notable characterization. Because she's a standard Cool Girl archetype, she's also the smartest, toughest and shrewdest of all the boys. (Truly, I would trade all the Ionas of fiction for more female characters who are allowed to be as unspecial as Tiuri.) Young Thaddea Graham brings satisfying swagger to the role, her waspish native Northern Irish brogue a welcome break from everyone else's adolescent bleating.

Unfortunately, while Graham gets to have all the fun, Wilson must remain in "forlorn" mode for most of the season. (The 22-year-old actor is making a name for himself in the fantasy and classic tale genres, starring in The Kid Who Would Be King, HBO's His Dark Materials and in the upcoming The Secret Garden adaptation.) Wilson exudes vulnerability, his youthful eyes (and curlicued eyelashes) rendering Tiuri believably post-pubescent.

Lacking urgency and visual splendor, The Letter for the King attempts a high-speed gallop, but ends up flopping on its belly and rolling around a little. Your family is better off delving into Netflix's The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a much more thrilling Baby's First Game of Thrones.

Cast: Amir Wilson, Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, Gijs Blom, Thaddea Graham, David Wenham, Islam Bouakkaz, Jonah Lees, Jack Barton, Nathanael Saleh, Peter Ferdinando, Emilie Cocquerel, Jakob Oftebro, Yorick van Wageningen, Tawfeek Barhom, Andy Serkis
Executive producers: Will Davies, Paul Trijbits
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)