The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die 2023 Movie Review
Set mostly in England, back before it was officially called England — and centuries before Great Britain was so much as a glint in the eye of James I — director Ed Bazalgette’s workmanlike historical epic “The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die” wraps up the events of “The Last Kingdom,” the Netfix drama series based on Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” novels. Playing like “Game of Thrones” with more history and fewer dragons, the film opens with several smaller kingdoms, including Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, gearing up for a power struggle exacerbated by the recent death of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and worsened by the surreptitious attempts of the Danes to sow discord.
for newcomers to understand that Uhtred is a good guy, happy to respect religious and cultural differences in the name of peace.
Starting life on the BBC before transitioning to Netflix in the third of its five seasons, the series’ punchy list of alumni includes Matthew Macfadyen, Ian Hart and Rutger Hauer (“Blade Runner”), but it’s fair to say that later seasons and this new film favor rising stars over veterans. The relative obscurity of the events in question — at least compared to, say, “The Crown” — is quite helpful in this respect: If you want to cast handsome young things as rival royal brothers Aethelstan (born c. 894) and Aelfweard (born c. 902), you aren’t going to find too many people popping up on Twitter pointing out the real Aethelstan didn’t exactly look like that.
Of the ensemble newcomers in this installment, it’s the same old story: The devil has the best tunes, with the two standout roles both villainous types. As the pagan Danish warrior king Anlaf, Finnish-Swedish star Pekka Strang (“Tom of Finland”) is probably the best performer of the bunch, though it’s a shame the material doesn’t give him more to play with. Meanwhile, on the Christian side of things, Laurie Davidson fares better here as an untrustworthy advisor to the would-be king than he (and pretty much everyone else) did in Tom Hooper’s “Cats.”
This is probably not a film that will engage too many people outside the show’s existing fanbase, though “Lord of the Rings” acolytes may get a kick out of seeing its dramatizations of various historical inspirations for J.R.R. Tolkien’s extensive world-building. Certainly in his eventual bid to unite various smaller kingdoms of men in a massive climactic fight against a common enemy, Aethelstan (whose name means “noble stone”) is a possible historical inspiration for Aragorn (who the deep nerds will recall is also referred to as “elf stone”), and there are plenty of similar parallels to to be drawn.
Where “Seven Kings Must Die” is most interesting, however, is in its approach to religion, sexuality and culture. While it’s tempting to see our current era as unprecedented in its social blending of diverse faiths and identities, early medieval England gives contemporary Western society a run for its money in this respect. The dominant conflict is between Christianity and Pagan religions, but even within these factions there are myriad approaches presented here: We see some characters acting with genuine faith in their beliefs, and others manipulating belief to political social ends. Plus ça change, as nobody in England until at least 1066 would have said.
This interest in the parallels between the present day and events taking place over a thousand years ago is evident in a number of production flourishes, including the approach to onscreen place names: We see the location for a scene spelled out in the appropriate local language, before the letters rearrange themselves into its modern English appellation. (Wintanceaster becomes Winchester and so on.) There are also occasional onscreen excerpts from surviving Anglo-Saxon literature (the epic poem “The Battle of Brunanburh” is both dramatized and quoted), while I shall not spoil an unexpected location-based formal gambit in the final moments.