Film Review: The Last King

A Norwegian history lesson that offers very little of interest for American audiences, unless they’re really into skiing.
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Thanks to HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” American audiences have gotten used to large, hairy men bearing swords and fighting one another to the death. That show’s success has given license for Scandinavian films to get a North American release, including this historic battle epic from Norwegian director Nils Gaup.

The Last King is set during the Norwegian Civil War of 1204, when the King’s Birkebeinerne (translated as “Birch Legs”) must face the Baglers or Bishopsmen, devoted to the Church. Amidst this conflict, two of the former group, Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju), discover that the King has an infant son named Håkon Håkonsson, so they sneak the boy away, knowing their enemy would kill the child to end the king’s bloodline. The situation becomes more dire when the reigning king is murdered by a usurper to the throne in cahoots with the Baglers.

The moment you realize this isn’t going to be your typical historic battle epic is when you first see the Birkebeinerne skiing down a mountain, an odd sight that may seem perplexing at first. At least it explains why they’re called “Birch Legs” and since the word “ski” actually comes from Norway, who’s to challenge that 13th-century Norwegians got around using skis? It’s certainly not something we’re used to seeing, but it’s also the least of the movie’s problems.

Gaup is a fairly experienced filmmaker in Norway, despite being a complete unknown in America, and at times it feels like he’s yet another Scandinavian filmmaker trying to show his chops in order to get work in Hollywood. He does have a decent cast, especially the two leads, who are just as impressive on skis as off, but other than that, many of the characters look alike and even have similar names, which just makes it that much more confusing to follow. At least Gaup uses his landscapes well, with the snow-covered Norwegian woods and mountains captured using panoramic shots.

Also, whether it was intended or not, the image of two burly bearded men carrying a baby, trying to keep it from crying as they’re chased across the country, does give the film a heartwarming tone not unlike the Japanese classic Lone Wolf and Cub.

Otherwise, it’s a movie filled with treachery and betrayal, as everyone is trying to get their hands on this adorable baby that has absolutely no idea he’s now the King of Norway. This leads to lots of scenes of men riding horses in slow motion and a few bursts of bloody action, as well as a high-speed chase on skis down a mountain that probably would have been better suited for a James Bond film. None of that is nearly enough to make the story more interesting.

It all ends with a big battle, as Skjervald and Torstein lead a group of farmers (on skis, no less) against the Baglers to protect their infant king, leading to an absolutely ridiculous moment in which Skjervald is dragged on his skis behind a wild horse.

Even so, The Last King isn’t all bad and there’s some potential for a decent film, especially once the story and characters begin to grow on you. It’s just really hard getting past the “skiing Vikings” thing. No matter how much you try to enjoy the story, whenever those skis come out it’s hard to take anything about the movie very seriously.

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