There is a standalone feature film and final capstone in Netflix’s British-made TV series The Last Kingdom, an epic in every sense of the word that’s based on novels by Bernard Cornwell and unfolds in the 10th century, just before the Norman invasion. Even if you’ve never seen a single episode from any of the show’s previous five seasons of dramatized yet highly researched British history, you’ll probably quite like to go back and start watching the whole saga from the beginning because it gets more gripping the more you surrender to it. This is largely down to the thoughtful way it tries to present a society composed of pagan Danes and Christian Saxons – and folks who are a bit of both – trying with some difficulty to all get along.
The main dude is one such mixed-heritage chap named Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), who apparently was born a Saxon but raised by Vikings and believes in the Norse gods. A fearsome warrior wielding a sword with a chunk of amber on the hilt, and a mane of tangled hair shaved at the sides so he looks like a new age traveler from the 1990s, Uhtred is the leader of a community in Northumbria, eschewing the title king. His alliance with the royal family of Wessex to the south is tested when newly crowned King Aethelstan (Harry Gilby) comes to power and is persuaded by his closest adviser Ingilmundr (Laurie Davidson) (a fanatical convert to Christianity) to use this moment to seize control of all Britain’s kingdoms, from the Shetland and Orkney islands to Wessex. There are, as the title might imply, eight kings in all, but the wife of a friend of Uhtred’s with a history of making prophecies foretells that seven of them will die.
There’s a ton of plot crammed tightly into the running time, but director Edward Bazalgette manages the storytelling efficiently, helped by the display of place names at the beginning of each scene explaining which castle we’re at now, as well as how it was known in 900-something, and the name it goes by now. If you like that kind of nerdy attention to detail, you will love this – the saga must be essential viewing for Larp enthusiasts and battle recreators. But, Bazalgette and the film never wink at us, and try to stay true to the mindset of the times, from self-hating gay men who try to purge the “sins” they fear they’ve committed by waging war for Christianity, to the way Dark Age folks treated women and conquered enemies with about an equal amount of contempt. The battle scenes are not quite on the scale of the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones franchises, but they are pretty spicy and well staged for something that clearly has a far smaller budget.