The Last King (Birkebeinerne) – A review

Our second review of 2018 is another historical drama – this time, set in Norway in 1206.

In 1206, at a time when the whole of Europe was riven by religious factionalism and the Baglers, backed by Denmark and the Catholic Church, were pushing east through Norway, the Norwegian king was murdered. In a state of crisis, his followers had one hope – that his infant son, Håkon Håkonson might survive and inspire a revolt against his usurper. Loyal Birkebeineme (king’s men) sought to hide the boy from his enemies and, against all odds, to secure his destiny.

Best friends and Birkebeinerne Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju) make  a pact to protect the child no matter the cost. After hiding Håkon on a farm, Skjervald decides it’s time to go back to his family and resume his life as a simple farmer – but knowing who he is, the Baglers with the would-be King Gisle, pursue him to get their answers and find out where Håkon is hiding. Sadly for Skjervald, tragedy ensues – but this hardens his resolve to return to Torstein, to protect Håkon and keep him safe from Gisle and his men.

With compelling fight and flight scenes across a magnificently-shot snowy mountainous Norwegian background, this film has no trouble in keeping viewers entertained while also teaching a significant part of Norwegian history – and showcasing the incredible Norwegian talent for cross-country skiing – especially while being pursued by armed men on horseback, on the difficult-to-traverse but visually stunning mountains between Lillehammer and Trondheim (a distance of roughly 351km).


Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child, painted by Knud Bergslien.

Well paced and with very few slow periods, this is history at its most visceral. There are occasional detours into politics and the plight of Kristin (Thea Sofie Loch Næss), the dead king’s daughter, which are more in keeping with popular drama of this type, but for the most part we are on the move, thundering through the snow, in an environment that leaves little room for forgiveness.

Viewers of Game of Thrones will recognise one of the warriors (Torstein) as Wildling Tormund Giantsbane and will find his role in this film not dissimilar to his role in Game of Thrones

 

For the history and trivia buffs:

  • The city arms of Lillehammer show a Birkebeiner skiing in honour of the historic rescue.
  • The mascots Håkon and Kristin of the 1994 Winter Olympics are depicted as Birkebeiner children, bearing the names of the son and daughter of king Sverre.
  • The historic event of the rescue of Haakon Haakonsson is honoured in Norway by three annual sporting events, a run, Birkebeinerløpet; a mountain bike race, Birkebeinerrittet; a cross-country ski race, Birkebeinerrennet and, beginning in 2012, Landeveisbirken, a road bicycle race. Common for the bike and ski events is the requirement of carrying a backpack weighing 3.5 kg as a remembrance of the child the Birkebeiners had to carry on their journey. The bike and ski events start in Rena and all three events finish at Lillehammer. There are also sister cross-country ski races held in Hayward Wisconsin (United States) (the American Birkebeiner), in Edmonton (Canada) and in Falls Creek (Australia).

 

 

 

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