Netflixable? “The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die”

Orson Welles’ depiction of the confusing, intimate, bloody muddy mire of the Battle of Shrewsbury in “Chimes at Midnight” is the gold standard for Medieval combat recreated on film.

Mel Gibson once told me he consulted “Chimes” in choreographing and shot-blocking his take on the Battle of Stirling in “Braveheart,” which rivals Welles in its murderous, murky, writhing bodies struggling to the death detail.

But director Edward Bazalgette gives them both a run for their blood money with his reenactment of of the Battle of Brunanburh, the climax of “The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die.” The sweep of the sea of soldiers of many “uniforms” and their wooden shields, steel swords and lines of men pushing and stabbing and dying trampled under foot is a wonder to behold, filmed from many angles, “shield wall” to “swine wedge” driving into it.

And amidst the carnage, as is the way of motion picture storytelling, a young King Aethelstan will meet his nemesis, and the Northumbrian pagan Uhtred, whose story we followed through the reigns of King Alfred the Great and King Edward over five seasons of TV’s “The Last Kingdom,” will reach a human lifespan-of-the-day defying climax.

Based on the historical novels Bernard Cornwell conjured out of the historical “Anglo Saxon Chronicle,” this saga has his real-life hero — albeit from a hundredsl years later — present at the Battle of Edington at the end of the first season of the show, and a key figure at Brunanburh, 59 years later.

Tough chap.

Those of us who got into the series accepted that historical Bowdlerization as a small price to pay for a vividly messy, flesh and blood recreation of disunited Britain during the Dark Ages — a Brexit metaphor if there ever was one. But this movie meant to wrap it all up, with intrigues, treachery, massacres, manipulations and same sex romance, can feel like reading the “Chronicle” in the original Old English, even if your memories of the series are reasonably flesh.

The first hour of the film is an alphabet soup of everybody vying for a piece of the throne, their own kingdom or a piece of the action as King Edward I fades and dies. The voluminous “who is whom” and endless exposition just to get us back into this universe and up to status quo ante is “Old Testament/Lord of the Rings” dense, and pretty much pointlessly so.

Treating the show like the Anglo-Saxon soap opera that it could sometimes be, giving us lots of “fan service” in returning characters — from Edward’s widow (Elaine Cassidy) — to Uhtred’s faithful mates, Finan (Mark Rowley) and Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius) overwhelms it. One and all are being forced into this bit of fleeing, that kidnapping, fratricide or massacre and power grab by new King Aethelstan (Harry Gilby), his trusted, Christian advisor Ingimundr (Laurie Davidson) and the meddling Dane Anlaf (Pekka Strang) who isn’t just waiting for the Saxons to start killing each other, he’s egging them on.

There’s a prophecy that “Seven kings must die,” and there are spies, back-stabbers and manoevering kinfolk who are hellbent on making that come true.

We dash from setting to settling, wooden 10th century fortresses to stone citadels, islands (Isle of Man), cities (Winchester) and states we recognize (Scotia, “Scotland”) as one and all jockey and stab their way for power.

Uhtred, in his Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg, his mates at his beck and call and his trusty, amber-hilt sword Serpent’s Breath by his side, has no time to be dismayed at seeing Alfred and Edward’s unity undone, their “England,” where “a dream unites a people who once sought to kill each other.”

Uhtred must act, heavy-handledly if need be, sticking out his neck for this “dream” many more times.

Dreymon’s brooding energy ensures that Uhtred remains the charismatic heart of this narrative, with Gilby and Strang making strong impressions in support.

But…this…narrative. Bloody hell. The maelstrom of real history sweeping all these characters along, the parade of rulers, nobles and heirs one must keep track of (not really) renders the whole affair rushed and untidy.

It’s a common failing of when series writers try to shift to a compact, beginning-middle-end two hour feature film. The story is too cluttered to register and the cast needed serious streamlining. You can’t fit a season’s worth of characters and their agendas into two hours, as that “Sopranos” fellow famously found out.

The finale is a sequence to remember, and “Seven Kings Must Die” leaves you reasonably satisfied thanks to the climactic battle, even if the script is gutless about who it kills off. And there’s something to be said for finally “wrapping it all up,” as it were.

But as a stand-alone film, this one has about four kings too many to be wholly engaging.

Rating: TV-MA, bloody violence

Cast: Alexander Dreymon, Harry Gilby, Elaine Cassidy. Mark Rowley, Arnas Fedaravicius, Laurie Davidson and Pekka Strang

Credits: Directed by Edward Bazalgette, scripted by Martha Hillier, based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:00


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Netflixable? “The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die”

  1. Ville says:

    They swapped Sonya Cassidy for Elaine Cassidy and thought no one would notice – but the two aren’t even related!

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