The Last King
"What might easily have been a dry historical drama is delivered as a gripping action film complete with brutal battles and inventive chase scenes."

In 1206, at a time when the whole of Europe was riven by religious factionalism and the Baglers, backed by Denmark and the Catholic Church, were pushing east through Norway, the Norwegian king was murdered. In a state of crisis, his followers had one hope - that his infant son, Håkon Håkonson (played here by the amazingly cooperative Jonathan Oskar Dahlgren) might survive and inspire a revolt against his usurper. Loyal birkebeineme (king's men) sought to hide the boy from his enemies and, against all odds, to secure his destiny.

Or so the story goes. History is slightly messier, with a number of other short-lived heirs entering the picture during a bloody civil war. Yet though The Last King may be romantic in its interpretation of events, there's nothing gentle about its depiction of the conflict. What might easily have been a dry historical drama is delivered as a gripping action film complete with brutal battles and inventive chase scenes.

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Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju) are best friends (seen in Scandinavia in that period as the most important of human relationships), and they have made a pact to protect the child - indeed, Torstein solidifies it by falling for the child's mother, Inga (Ane Ulimoen Øverli). After the latter two hide Håkon on a farm, Skjervald returns to his family, but unfortunately that makes him too easy a target for scheming would-be king Gisle (Pål Sverre Hagen). Tragedy results, and soon Skjervald is on the run, desperate to reach the child and keep him out of reach of Gisle's men.

If you thought On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the apogee of ski chase scenes, this film has a surprise in store. Watching our heroes flee down cloud-shrouded, thickly forested slopes pursued by men on horseback is thrilling stuff, and there's even more dramatic stunt work in the final scenes. The horses are small, muscular and covered in thick hair, making them look much wilder and fiercer than what we're used to seeing onscreen. The soldiers are armed with longbows, the machine guns of their day, quick to load and almost always deadly. Axes, swords and sharp ski poles complete the armaments. Fighting involves direct blows to the face and the gouging of eyes - not gratuitous, just what happens when people are genuinely desperate.

Well paced and with very few slow periods, this is history at its most visceral. There are occasional detours into politics and the plight of Kristin (Thea Sofie Loch Næss), the dead king's daughter, which are more in keeping with popular drama of this type, but for the most part we are on the move, thundering through the snow, in an environment that leaves little room for forgiveness.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2016
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Medieval epic about 13th Century civil war in Norway.
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EIFF 2016

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