Film review: The Last King bids welcome to Ragnarök

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Film Institute Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju) are tasked with protecting the infant King Haakon of Norway in Nils Gaup’s The Last King.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Film Institute
Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju) are tasked with protecting the infant King Haakon of Norway in Nils Gaup’s The Last King.

Linda Warren
Washington, D.C.

In The Last King, director Nils Gaup tells the story of a heroic rescue that changed Norwegian History.

The “facts” of the story come from the Saga of Haakon Haakonson. In 1206, during the Norwegian Civil War, the Baglers, a faction of the merchants and men loyal to the church, plot to kill the heir to the throne, the infant Haakon, the only son of the dead king.

Risking their lives to save the baby, two Birkenbeiners, named for their birch leggings, save the infant by skiing across the mountains from Lillehammer to Nidaros, the name for the city of Trondheim in the Middle Ages.

The brave and burly Torstein (Kristofer Hivju of Game of Thrones) leads the mission, powering through ice and snow, skiing with the baby in his arms and an arrow in his back. He reminds Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro of Kon-Tiki) that he must never allow revenge to throw them off-course.

Director Nils Gaup (1987 Oscar nominee for Pathfinder) uses myth, action, and tender framing to make this ancient battle for succession emotionally compelling. How does he do this? Let’s start with the wooden horse.

While this is not Sleipnir, the eight-legged flying horse that Odin rides to the gates of Hell, this toy horse plays an important role in the forward thrust of The Last King. The toy horse illustrates a storytelling technique called the “power of object.” This technique has cinematic punch because it shoots the backstory into the present and sparks life-saving transformations.

Seeking to distract the crying baby king, Torstein circles the wooden horse in front of the baby’s face, starting a story he challenges Skjervald to continue.

Speechless at first, for this wooden horse once belonged to his son, Skjervald adds a halting line of dialogue. The baby smiles. A smile sneaks across Skjervald’s face, before he can stop it.

Got him, Torstein must be thinking, for he now ups the ante, vaulting his harmless tale into myth that transforms men into gods. Torstein says that this heroic horse rode through a great fire, and did not perish because he found the fire in himself. Baby Haakon coos, his eyes blinking wonder. But what about stoic Skjervald? The camera rests on his impassive face.

All doubts about Skjervald’s commitment to the cause are erased in the next scene when he delivers a pointed speech that turns farmers into soldiers.

His movie pep talk does not rise to the level of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but it has a shaming persuasion that cuts deeper than a Bagler’s sword. Skjervald says the Baglers killed my son. Together we must stop them and save our country. We will be safe only when we fight as the King’s men.

Now, like the wooden horse, the farmers are eager to embrace hellfire and be transformed. Where will their courage and commitment take them? Into hand-to-hand combat so deadly that Torstein shouts to Skjervald, “Welcome to Ragnarök!” In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is the last battle between men and gods when the world is destroyed by fire.

The fight scenes “sing” with swords, axes, and crossbows, stacked images crammed into space with grunts, clangs, and bangs. There are many thrilling chase sequences as the skiers cut through the snow in geometric patterns in a relentless whisper of pursuit.

Many of the simpler scenes are the most powerful. There is a caressing quality to the framing, the emotional heart of the scene unfolding in the center. The frame holds the image the way you hold a cherished object safely in your hand, with enough space on either side to give you time to ponder its meaning.

In a mountain wilderness with snow that stretches to infinity, Torstein and Skjervald ski downhill becoming specs of black dust in the smothering blizzard. Inge Bardson, his face shadowed by prison bars, forgives his scheming brother and begs him to do the right thing. Let the king’s son live, he says. Inge transforms his prison into a healing space.

In director Gaup’s framing, I find enough room to add my own layer of myth. I like playing with the idea that the forces of darkness flourish in well-lit spaces and those with the “moral high ground” struggle in the dark.

Watch the evil Bagler leader explode across the snow on an exuberant white pony with a luminescent mane like Skinfaxi, in Norse legend, the pony of dawn. The bright sky nods in agreement.

In the cramped cabin, with a just a hint of light from the fire, Skjervald and his wife and child form a circle of love. The details of the cabin, out of focus behind them, register as a soft grey mist. The family is free to live and dream. Good men and good women, in dark spaces, make their own light.

The Last King opens in select theatres on June 17, 2016, and will also be available on demand from many sources. For more info, visit www.magnetreleasing.com/thelastking.

Linda Warren has worked as a writer and producer for NBC and ABC affiliates. She is a member of Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. Her screenplay The National Museum of Driftwood won the gold Remi at WorldFest-Houston in 2014. She has a masters in Journalism from American University in Washington, D.C.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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