“A story inspired by actual events,” the new film from director Nils Gaup, best known for Pathfinder (Ofelaš), his 1987 film which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, he has returned to the tales of his native Scandanavia for The Last King which enjoyed it’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Opening in Nidaros in the year 1204, during Norway’s last extended period of civil war at the end of the reign of King Håkon Sverresson of the Birkebeiner (The Saboteurs‘ Benjamin Helstad), regarded as a pretender to the throne by the opposing Bagler, a powerful faction composed of the aristocracy and with the support of the church.
The ambitious Inge (Thorbjørn Harr) plots to have the king poisoned and imprisons his own brother Gisle (Kon-Tiki‘s Pål Sverre Hagen) who was loyal to the throne, but borne an illegitimate son by Inga of Varteig (Ane Ulimoen Øverli) who is named as rightful heir with the king’s dying breath, Inge must eliminate the child king Håkon Håkonsson if he is to secure power, his ultimate aim being marriage to Kristin (Thea Sofie Loch Næss), daughter of the King of Sweden
With Håkon dead the Birkebeiner have lost their unifiying force, and Inga and the baby Håkon must flee under the protection of Torstein Skevla (Game of Thrones‘ Kristofer Hivju) and Skjervald Skrukka (When Animals Dream‘s Jakob Oftebro), unlikely guardians of the royal household who must conduct them from Lillehammer to Østerdalen, but they are natural skiers, born to this land of mountains, mist and majesty.
A mad dash from outpost to outpost seeking safety using only their greater skill on snow to escape, Inge’s men are close behind every step of the way, spurred on by the church who have thrown their support behind his coup, even if it means murdering a child.
“The lord is eternally merciful but he also demands sacrifice,” they are told, and in their path to their quarry are Ylva (Inga Ibsdotter Lilleaas) and Eirik, Torstein’s wife and son, the reluctant warrior given the choice of betraying his promise or watching his family die.
With cinematography by The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’s Peter Mokrosinski, The Last King is brilliantly realised but somewhat repetitive, the film is carried by the breath taking scenery, bloody battles and raw performances and the impressive stunt work, most of it performed on skis, the only frustration being the understandable necessity of a “travelling” baby prop for reasons of safety which is somewhat unconvincingly inanimate.
The diverse factions engaged in political manoeuvring given little introduction or context, Ravn Lanesskog’s script might be hard to follow for those not conversant with Norwegian history, but the film is sufficiently swift and bold that the audience are soon swept along, and the advantage is that even though based on a true story, unlike a Hollywood film or a better known incident, the outcome is never certain.