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Having a knowledge of Norwegian history would certainly make the experience of The Last King (original title: Birkebeinerne) a richer one, but even without it, there is not much trouble following along. It’s a complex story with a number of players who jockey for power and control and safety, but while names may be difficult to remember, faces will not. The Last King is an epic, beautiful, riveting snowbound tale that takes hold quickly and never lets go.
It’s the year 1204 and Norway is plunged into a bitter civil war between the mighty and powerful Baglers and the numerous but poor Birkebeins. The Baglers are the aristocracy, the merchants and clerics, a well-funded and armed faction who aim to depose the current king and install their own. The Birkebeins are mostly peasants, but the king favors them. In the Bagler territories, the king sires an illegitimate son named Haakon, who, when grown, could claim rights to the throne. For the Baglers, this would mean a challenge to their imposter king so set out to destroy the infant. The baby must be taken to the Birkebeins and while a great effort is made by many to do so, it falls to two men, Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro), a farmer with a wife and child, and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju), an experienced warrior. The two form a pact to do whatever they can to protect the boy and stave of the steady advancement of the murderous Baglers army.
Directed by Nils Gaup, who began his career with a notable English language Disney film called Shipwrecked (starring Gabriel Byrne) back in 1990, has not exactly been prolific in the years that followed, but here shows a great return to form with a deeply personal story that, while loaded with some pulse-pounding winter action, is one framed around unity, betrayal, sacrifice, and love. Without a doubt, there are moments that confound, as the cultural lore and somewhat fictionalized history are packed dense with dozens of characters that beg for our attention. Still, the scope and scale are gloriously photographed, and even in the great expanse of the searing white snows, we can follow the action.
There are contrivances of course, some that are familiar to Western audiences. A wedding is stopped just at the right time. Good guys can take arrows to the body and survive while nameless enemies fall by the dozens with the same attack. But this hardly diminishes from what amounts to some truly inspired bits of action that would, in lesser hands seem ridiculous. When we see Skjervald towed by a long rope on wooden skies by three horses at full gallop through a mountain pass while firing arrows at horsemen chasing a woman and a baby in a sled we do not laugh but instead stare in wonder at the expertly staged stunts and great sense of speed. Not to mention the critical investment in the characters we have that give the pressure of the moment such great weight. It’s as good as anything from Hollywood, and as much of the mountain sequences were performed practically, with real men on skies, it’s a spectacle for fans of the sport as well.
The Last King is a formidable experience, one that clings to the history with some justifiable dramatic flair. There isn’t a bad performance in the lot, and the authenticity of the setting and dialog (Norwegian with English subtitles) lend a great deal to the film. Yes, it follows a formula we all know well, and perhaps puts a little too much focus on the action rather than the politics and motivations behind the factions, but for fans of battles and period piece action, this will not disappoint.
Movie description: In a time of civil war, the Norwegian King's illegitimate son, a target for assassination, is kept in hiding by two brave men, an action that has profound effect on the future of the country.
Director(s): Nils Gaup
Actor(s): Michael Aasen, Anders Dahlberg, Jonathan Oskar Dahlgren