The Last Kingdom (S1-S4)
“What binds a man to his land? What power within allows him to give his life to preserve his land & the lives of the families who work it? It can only be love.”
For sure when we buried our heads in the history books for A grades in high school annual exams, we couldn’t have substantiated the underlying essence of these lines. But no sooner one of the season’s finale flashes before our eyes — in the glinting moonlight underneath the starry winter sky, two armies have met in silence on the vast fields outside Beamfleot, and although some have known it’s either glory or Valhalla, they haven’t stopped marching while belching roars of “SHIIIEELLD WAALLLL” — than we realize the sheer enticement which has enabled men for centuries after centuries to rush into battlefields in the face of enemy swords, either to conquer or to protect, all under the aegis of love.
While “God, gore & gossip” remain the standard ingredients for the success of an on-screen period drama, this Netflix original (first 2 seasons being BBC production), directed majorly by Peter Hoar with Stephen Butchard as script writer, provides much more than just that. Balancing fantasy & realism, telling tales of spirituality within a materialistic realm, it evolves into a compelling Saxon-Viking Saga that will sometimes break you down but mostly fill you up with courage, all the while revealing the power of holding on especially when it seems most impossible.
STORY & SCREENPLAY
Loosely adapted from “The Saxon Stories”, a historical novel series written by Bernard Cornwell about the birth of England in the ninth and tenth centuries, The Last Kingdom pivots around the resistance of the Kingdom of Wessex to continuous Danish attacks on Southern England, covering about 40–45 years (866 AD – 912 AD) by the end of season 4.
It begins around the mid-9th century, when Scandinavian marauders of Danish and Norse origins were constantly ravaging Western Europe. “Danes – the Devil’s turds” – is the very first introduction of these mighty settlers who had arrived in Britain with their very own kindred pre-Christian beliefs. Worshippers of Odin & other gods of nature, they kept Thor’s hammer close to them. The lot who loved their women fiercely & fought against their rivals gallantly were determined to take over the main four kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.
The year is 867 AD. The Great Heathen Army led by Lord Ubba Ragnarsson terrorizes Northumbria, having slain both of their leaders who had claims to the crown. With his Saxon nobleman father killed in battle, young Uhtred is kidnapped by the Norsemen who raise him as one of their own, while the Vikings continue their attack on England’s various kingdoms. History tells us that within a decade, nearly all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms besides Northumbria would fall to the plunderers – including East Anglia in 869, and almost all of wealthy Mercia (lying north-west of Wessex) between 874 and 877. Churches, kingdoms, and centres of learning would be caught and pillaged alike in the onslaught of the invading Danes, leaving only Wessex to take the last solitary stand. How Uthred fights for his land & helps the king of Wessex to fulfill his dream of one united nation is the crux of the series.
The narrative is quick paced with a tight screenplay and the story gets straight to the point without straying much. Using sets in Hungary, the photography is breathtaking and with minimum factual inaccuracies, the story stays true to the chronicle. However, the team takes some liberty in view of set designs and costumes; the latter, although gorgeous & full of detailed artistry, is not a perfect depiction of the 9th century dressing style. But where TLK completely stands out is its usage of heart wrenchingly beautiful Background music compositions. The duo of Faroese singer Eivør and Scottish composer John Lunn has created magic which takes us directly to the era where the show is set in. Do check out the tracks “Lívstræðrir” and “Icicle” after finishing the series for an ethereal experience!
PERFORMANCES & DIRECTION
Born as a Saxon & Christian, deprived of his birthright to Bebbanburg’s throne by his uncle, Uthred was bought by the pagan Earl Ragnar, who is rather compassionate to the boy.
“You bought me for how much?
Too much. How much is too much?
My Sword’s worth in silver…
Does this mean I’m a Dane?
This means you are Uthred Ragnarson, you are a son to me now”
And with this dialogue the central theme of the show gets established – the constant question of identity. This is the last we see of the child Uthred. By the end of the first episode, he (now played by Alexander Dreymon) is a grown man — a believer of destiny who is of no fixed abode and conflicted at heart. Speaking of performance, this internal agony of the protagonist is brilliantly acted out by Dreymon who shines in every frame. The gifted actor is confident with his sword in the combat scenes, impulsive in his actions when scared, charming with the ladies, restrained but expressive, all at the same time. Although criticized for his German accent, he brings forth a certain warmth on screen every time he appears that sets him apart from his contemporaries and compels the viewers to believe in the struggle of a man who is torn between loyalties, has been robbed off happiness each time by the cruelty of fate, and is thus desperate to find inner peace and justice. To give a slight warning, beware, he is someone you might fall in love with!!
The series shoots up pace as Uthred, driven by circumstances, reaches Wessex to meet Alfred (David Dawson), who is yet to be a king. The visionary tells Uthred, “The birth of an England, the idea of a single kingdom called England, has to begin here. There is nowhere else.” Dawson is a perfect choice for a firm man with immense foresight who tries to be the living embodiment of everything that Christianity stands for. It is his and Dreymon’s face offs which gives the show’s most attention demanding and touchy moments.
Other than the two leads, the terrific cast consists of Ian Hart as the benevolent priest, Emily Cox as the headstrong Danish warrior, Elizabeth Butterworth as the formidable queen of King Alfred, Mark Rowley – the Irish right hand man of Uthred, and bloodthirsty villains like Jonas Malmsjö, Björn Roger Bengtsson along with many others, none of them being an unnecessary addition. Kudos to the directors who gave enough space even to the ancillary roles which led to proper character developments and added much depth to the seamless storytelling.
To add one last point while talking about the direction’s calibre: it’s a fact that we can’t expect a show based on Scandinavian times without fierce, gory battles. But to my greatest relief, TLK doesn’t have mindless brawls. Rather, beneath every elaborate war event we have an emotional undertone which keeps one hooked. There is bloodshed, of course; but it’s never over the top horrific, rather the accurately portrayed battle sequences with help of stunt doubles coupled with amazing camera work show the collective effort the crew put in — and it’s magnificent.
The Last Kingdom is one poignant creation which I’d definitely revisit time & again because it’s beautifully haunting, it stays with you longer than you expect. Halfway through, Uthred soliloquized “one must realise that the truth of a man lies not in the land of his birth but in his heart” — thus, we come full circle & understand it is not only a memoir of time, but also an awe-inspiring account of a man’s journey towards transcendence.
Can’t hold my excitement as the final season is going to release in 2022.
This is hugely, hugely recommended from my end!
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.