The Last King is almost certainly the first movie to feature 13th-century Norwegian warriors firing bows and arrows while being towed behind draft horses on skis. Bless its heart, it's also totally sincere — there isn't an an ounce of winking irony to Ravn Lanesskog's historical drama, whose low-key modesty is a welcome corrective to the would-be epics currently flooding theaters.
As such, there's no bloat to its 100-minute runtime. In that sense The Last King is kin to The Wave, last year's natural-disaster movie that likewise pointed toward Norway as a source of lean, well-wrought genre fare. I can't speak to the historical accuracy of these ski battles; lest it ruin my fun, I don't even want to look it up in case none of these downhill chases ever actually occurred.
Set in 1204, when our Scandinavian friends were in the midst of a civil war, The Last King commences with two illicit lovers in a candlelit chamber hatching a treasonous plot to do away with their king. They're overheard, of course, but the villains carry out their scheme nevertheless. It goes off without a hitch — until it doesn't. With his dying breath, the poisoned ruler reveals that he has an infant son who is to inherit the throne. Two loyal subjects are in the midst of retrieving said heir, much to the chagrin of the would-be usurper, who does exactly what you'd expect him to: He sends his underlings to assassinate the child as well. In for a kroner, in for a kilogram.
This is a film of many -icides, centering primarily on the reg- and infant- varieties, though there are certainly attempts at the fratr- kind as well. Brothers betray brothers and loyalists betray confidences. But there's honor to be found as well. The dude who plays Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones (Kristofer Hivju) treks across hyperborea with the royal baby and his best bro on a mission from their slain monarch to ensure the regal line lives on. The Last King's palace intrigue isn't always intriguing, and the action is too modestly scaled to inspire awe, but Lanesskog's film proves oddly charming as a sitcom-esque bromance between two faithful servants.
Hivju, who plays easily the most endearing wildling on Thrones, has an easy chemistry with his co-star. At one point they flee their horse-riding enemies (on skis, of course), first downhill and then cross-country, holding onto their royal charge all the while. Think of it as Two Norwegians and a Baby with broadswords thrown in for good measure.
Back at the seat of power, the miscreant who plotted to off the king in the first place frames his brother for the crime and allows him to rot in a jail cell. The Last King doesn't fare as well with this kind of Shakespearean backstabbing, based on fact though much of it may be, and awaiting the newborn heir apparent eventually becomes a matter of course.
The film functions as a sort of creation myth for the Norway of today, as it isn't battle prowess but the ability to bring about peace that's most highly valued here. War isn't glorious but rather a necessary evil and a means to an end — something to get out of the way before resuming life as normal.
The Last King
Directed by Nils Gaup
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre