A Bad Time to Be a King
The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die
I'm torn on the idea of continuing and, in the process, concluding The Last Kingdom. The series, started by the BBC and then taken over by the NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it)., hasn't exactly been what's I'd classify as "must see TV". It wasn't bad, per se, but it never quite rose as high as its ambitions. It always felt like a low-rent Vikings, a show desperate to tap into that historical fantasy vibe of Game of Thrones without the production budget or behind-the-camera talent.
Don't get me wrong, the show has a solidly charismatic lead with Alexander Dreymon. His performance as Uhtred of Bebbanburg (son of Uhtred, grandson of Uhtred, second cousin of Uhtred, etc.) is what drove the show and made it watchable. Without him at the center it would have been an overly serious mess of a series. He made the character likable, he wrapped the show around him, and he carried it to the finish line. Or so we thought. After five seasons Uhtred's adventures came to an end with him the hero, returned home to his ancestral lands. He cheered, he sat on the lord's throne. He was done with the dealings of England.
However, There were still Saxon Stories by author Bernard Cornwell left to adapt, specifically the final novel, War Lord. This meant that a hero who had finally completed his arc, who had gotten everything he'd wanted after fighting his whole life, had to be trotted out one last time for another adventure. Was it really worth it? Well, this concluding film for the series, Seven Kings Must Die, is watchable enough, but as far as finding a compelling reason to get Uhtred back on the horse one last time, the film is lacking.
In the movie, the King of the Anglo-Saxons, Alfred, has died leaving the question of succession somewhat up in the air. His first son, Aethelstan (Harry Gilby), lays claim to the throne, as does his brother, Aelfweard (Ewan Horrocks), while the youngest son, Edmund (Zak Sutcliffe), is brought to Bebbanburg by his mother, Lady Eadgifu (Elaine Cassidy), for his protection. Uhtred, fearing a bloody war for succession that could leave the lands of the Angles even weaker, steps in. He manages to broker the surrender of Aelfweard, but then Aethelstan betrays the peace and has his brother killed. Before his eyes, Uhtred watches Aethelstan become a tyrant.
What changed? Aethelstan seems to have given his ear (and his heart) to Ingilmundr (Laurie Davidson), a man with wickedness in his heart. Although Aethelstan can't see it, Ingilmundr plots against England, readying it for an attack by the other countries that make up the isles of the Angles. Six kings stand against Aethelstan and with the boy king constantly pushing him away, not even Uhtred can save the king. This could be the end of the dream of a unified England, and it could spell the end of Uhtred as well if all his enemies have their way.
The plot of the film then boils down to Uhtred getting dragged into a war he doesn't want, harried by the petty squabbles of kings on both sides. Considering this was a man who had o fight, tooth and nail, for every little scrap he got just so he could reclaim his family's fortress at Bebbanburg. This battle between various states of the larger island feels, somehow, beneath him. It's the kind of squabble he could just ignore from behind the walls of his fortress, him and his well trained warriors who manage to survive everything thrown at them.
Oh, sure, the film throws out the idea that Uhtred has to somehow honor the promises he made to the king's family... except after he gets betrayed again, and again, and again, one would think he would have given up on any oath he made. Hell, in the series that precedes this series, more than once he dropped an oath when kings betrayed him. "You want to fuck with me, I'll go back home and do my own thing." Uhtred has never struck me as a person to force his way into a conflict when it's clear he's not needed or wanted. Frankly, the fact that he was a lord who had an oath to his people, with a piece of the island that wasn't part of Edward's English lands meant he had people already relying on him. Running off for this war feels like a betrayal of his oath to them.
But then, the film does force the characters through a lot of logic leaps just to get all the pieces in place. More than once some characters take action because some random messenger they don't know, who they shouldn't trust, gives them bad information. Considering our hero (and his brave men) used to be able to smell a trap from a mile away, constantly having them fall for shit over and over again fails their characters. It doesn't work in the context of what we already know about them.
It would mean more if, in the process of all this, we learned anything new about Uhtred or saw him get some greater reward out of all of this. Part of a solid adventure is giving the hero a journey that enhances them as a person. For Uhtred, though, he doesn't really end up anywhere he wouldn't have been before. He's the lord of his fortress when he starts, and all he manages by the time this adventure is over is to be back at his fortress, a little older, much bloodier, and closer to his death bed. That's not really the making of a solid hero's journey.
That, really, is the issue with this series. It has the same production value as the series before it, the same graceless action and shaky cinematography. It, in no way, moves itself or its characters forward. It's just one more excuse to trots the characters out so they can, what, move towards death? The series already gave him everything he wanted, and concluded on a solid note. There was no reason to trot Uhtred out again... and yet the film does. It's a sequel film that can't even justify its own existence.
Maybe there was a way to create a continuation of The Last Kingdom that actually could give reason for Uhtred to strap on his sword one last time. He could fight for his children, or the love of his life, or to protect his land. Those are reasons worthy of his cause. But fighting for a king somewhere else, all so he can just return home to his family fort all over again, that's not something that should work for the character. It's a continuation stuck in place, lacking any reason to exist at all.