I put on The Last King/ Birkebeinerne on a whim. I just needed some background noise. However, when the film opened up with the allegation that it was in fact based upon some real life events, I knew that it would no longer just be background noise. I’m a huge history fan so my interest was fully piqued.
Basically, the background history is this: from around 1130-1240, Norway underwent a series of civil wars. Prior to this, Norway had often been ruled under a power-sharing agreement wherein 2 kings or so would agree to govern together. This was done so because Norway had vague kingship laws. As long as a pretender had a claim to the throne (regardless of his legitimate/ illegitimate status), they could partake in the sharing of power. However, over time, some kings broke their oaths (i.e. to not claim the throne until someone’s reign was over) or attempted to usurp all power. Inciting these power struggles, were the neighbouring kingdoms of Sweden and Denmark, who would periodically pledge their support to various leaders. As such, various civil wars began. It is important to note that the civil wars weren’t always between the same two groups, as agreements and alliances shifted. However, by 1177, a faction known as Birkebeiner (birchbark leggers), gained power and elected Sverre Sigurdsson (Sverre of Norway) as King in 1184. However, Sverre’s kingship wasn’t peaceful as a number of pretenders challenged his throne. By 1197, the Norwegian Catholic Church also fell into conflict with Sverre, and as a result, backed another faction: the Baglers. Unlike the Birkebeiner who were mostly made up of poorer peasants (hence their name – they could only afford birckbark to wrap their shoes), the Baglers consisted of the richer merchants, noblemen, and clergymen. Eventually, the Baglers and Birkebeiner emerged as the two main factions. Yet, despite the challenges, Sverre managed to hold onto power, until he died in 1202. His son Haakon Sverresson was made king after his death, but Haakon died in 1204, after less than 2 years on the throne. Desperate for a leader, the Birkebeiner put Inge Bardsson, a nobleman, on the throne. On the other hand, the Baglers saw this as the perfect opportunity to strengthen their claim to the throne and began fighting intensely. Amidst this struggle, it became known that Haakon Sverresson had actually fathered a son – thereby strengthening the claim of the Birkebeiner. However, the son, Haakon Haakonsson, was born within Bagler territory, thereby putting his life in danger as the Baglers were determined to kill him to strengthen their claim.
This is where the movie begins (1205/1206). Two Birkebeiner, Torstein (played by Kristofer Hivju) and Skjervald (played by Jakob Oftebro), manage to sneak into Bagler territory and pick up the infant Haakon Haakonsson and his mother. While enroute to a safehouse, they are spotted by Bagler troops. Hence, Torstein and Skjervald take the baby and flee, promising to deliver the child to safety. After a couple of cool skiing sequences (the birkebeiner carried the child while skiing in order to escape), they manage to find shelter for the night and deliver the child to the safehouse. Skjervald then decides to go home to his wife and child. Unfortunately, the Baglers get to his house and kill both his wife and child in their pursuit to find baby Haakon. Skjervald manages to escape and skis to the safehouse to warn Torstein and other Birkebeiner that the Baglers are still on their tail.
Meanwhile, back at the Birkebeiner stronghold, Nidaros, one of Haakon Sverresson’s loyal men, Inge (played by Thorbjorn Harr), is framed for his murder. Behind this conspiracy, is his younger brother, Gisle (played by Pal Sverre Hagen), who wants the throne for himself. It is shown that he indulged in an affair with Queen Margaret of Sweden, the widow of King Sverre, and convinced her to poison Haakon Sverresson. After administering the poison, she flees to Sweden, with the promise that Gisle will become king and then power will be theirs. However, Gisle betrays her and instead attempts to marry her daughter, Christina Sverresdatter (played by Thea Sofie Loch Naess), in order to secure his claim to the throne and gain the backing of the Birkebeiner. However, Christina is loyal to the throne (Birkebeiner) and Inge, so she attempts to betray Gisle and free Inge from jail. Unfortunately, she does not succeed.
Concurrently, the Birkebeiner ready themselves for battle to protect baby Haakon from the Baglers. Again, Torstein and Skjervald ski with the baby. The rest of the film deals with the two conflicts. Spoiler alert: Inge gets freed and reigns as regent for the young Haakon, who manages to reach Nidaros safely.
If you’re wary about watching this film without knowing about Norway’s history, I’d tell you to not worry. You actually don’t need to know the history behind the film in order to enjoy it. From a thematic point of view, the movie itself is very well made. Although it is historical in nature, the writers managed to adapt it to the big screen well as the story is (relatively) easy to follow onscreen. Of course you don’t get the nitty gritty details, such as who exactly the Baglers are, why the two (Baglers and Birkebeiner) are fighting, etc. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to know every single detail in order to enjoy the movie. Visually, it’s pretty cool to watch, especially the skiing action scenes (I’d probably call them the highlight of the movie). Plus, there are some nice emotional cute scenes with the baby. If anything, I’d say a prior knowledge of Norway’s history would probably allow you to appreciate the movie more, but again, I don’t think it’s necessary to know to enjoy.
The only big negative for the film, in my point of view, is that the film is not completely historically accurate. First off, from what I’ve been able to gather, Inge and other Birkebeiner actually did not know about Haakon Haakonsson’s existence until after Inge had been chosen to be the next king. So movie-Inge declaring himself to be regent until Haakon came of age is wrong. Secondly, Inge is never really framed for Haakon Sverresson’s murder. Suspicion falls upon Margaret of Sweden who actually does fail a trial and flees to Sweden. Inge is chosen to become the next Birkebeiner King. So movie-Inge being jailed is wrong. Thirdly, the character of Gisle doesn’t really exist in history. Inge did have a younger brother, but his name was Skule and he actually was the ruler of Norway, but after Inge’s death and he technically functioned as Haakon’s regent rather than Inge. So the whole plot of Gisle attempting to usurp power by framing Inge – no idea where that came from. On top of that, Gisle is implied to be a secret Bagler and is semi-supported by the Bagler’s as well. Given that information, it seems like Gisle’s character was partially inspired by the real life Bagler king, Philip Simonssen. Which is interesting, because the real life Christina Sverresdatter actually married Philip Simonssen. All of which implies that Gisle is a made up character, representing Skule and Philip together? I mean, if I squint, I can see why the writers chose to do that. However, as a history lover, I’m not impressed with it. Nonetheless, it’s a decent enough movie.
My rating: watch it if you’re a history lover, knowledgeable of Norwegian history, and/or if you want to watch cool skiing sequences.