The Last King Movie Review

last_king_dvd_2d.jpgI 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.

 

The Winter Palace Book Review

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The Winter Palace, for those of you unaware, used to be the official winter residence of Russian monarchs. Of course when the monarchy was abolished in 1917, it stopped being used as a royal residence and instead became a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, when I saw this book titled The Winter Palace, I was intrigued. And when the book claimed to be about Catherine the Great, I was further intrigued and hence picked up the book to read. While the description of the book isn’t explicitly accurate, it was still an enjoyable read and I intend on reviewing it. So let’s get into it.

The Winter Palace is written by Eva Stachniak and claims to tell the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power, beginning from when she was just Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. However, our lens for this story is not Princess Sophie, rather it is a Polish royal maidservant, Barbara (or Varvara as she’s known in Russia). And so the story actually begins with a history of Barbara’s life and how she came to be so close to the monarchs.

Barbara has a semi-uninteresting beginning. She was originally the daughter of a bookbinder who managed to repair a book for Empress Elizabeth of Russia and impress her in the process. He manages to ensure that Barbara is taken in by the royal court after his death. In other words, Elizabeth used to take in young orphan girls and have them work as her servants. Hence Barbara initially begins as a seamstress in the court, but finds the work tedious (she sucks at it) and hence begins covertly listening to others instead. Her ability catches the eye of Elizabeth’s chancellor, Bestuzhev, who then becomes a mentor of sorts for he and teaches her advanced spying methods. From his teachings, she comes a ‘tongue’ for him and Elizabeth. She spies on all servants and reports on their sayings/ activities to them. Eventually, she advances to the point of becoming a ‘reader’ for the next-in-line for the Russian Throne, Prince Peter (eventually Peter III of Russia).

It is through this line of work that she first meets the young Princess Sophie and becomes familiar with her. Despite being told to be suspicious of Sophie and given the duty of spying on her (Bestuzhev severely disliked Sophie), Barbara finds herself taken with the young Sophie. Sophie gifts Barbara an amber necklace and forges a pact with her, based on the fact that the two of them are ‘foreigners’ in the court (Sophie was German/ Prussian). Barbara then switches sides and covertly becomes Sophie’s tongue, protecting her and warning her about potential conspiracies.Barbara is eventually found out by Bestuzhev and he persuades Elizabeth to get Barbara married off and thus forced out of the palace.

During this time, a lot of stuff happens in Barbara’s life. And through bits and pieces, we’re also given some happenings with Sophie. Turns out, she suffers from a horrible marriage as her husband dislikes her and doesn’t like consummating with her. Desperate for an heir, Elizabeth sends one of her Romanov cousins, Sergei Saltykov, to seduce and impregnate Sophie. Unfortunately, once Sophie becomes pregnant, Sergei is ordered to leave her (Sophie loves him by this time) and once she gives birth, her son is snatched from her womb by Elizabeth. Elizabeth takes the newborn, future Paul I of Russia, and raises him on her own, refusing Sophie even a glimpse of her son.

By this time, Barbara is able to come back to the palace and support Sophie. She also becomes Elizabeth’s main room-servant. Sophie, meanwhile, hardens herself and continues to live life. During this time, she also grows braver, sneaking out to meet friends in the middle of the night dressed as men, having her lovers come into her room without bothering to hide the signs, etc. Barbara continually does her best to protect Sophie from Elizabeth (who really dislikes both Peter and Sophie and only loves Paul) and lies to her. Alongside Sophie’s life, Barbara’s life also changes as her husband eventually dies in war. She is left alone with their seven year old daughter and a loyal female servant. It is at this point that Barbara realizes how badly she treated her husband and how she had happiness within her grasp as a young newly married woman/mother but failed to see it.

Eventually, the book talks of how Elizabeth’s health fails, how Peter’s reign is disliked, and how Sophie gains the support of the soldiers. Once Sophie becomes Catherine the Great, Barbara becomes Chief Steward and her friendship with Catherine is at an all time high. Things are running smoothly and everything is going as it should. However, through certain circumstances, Barbara discovers that Catherine employs other ‘tongues’ beside her and also uses her daughter to keep tabs on Barbara’s life. She is furious, seeing these things as a betrayal and unwilling to have her daughter involved in court life. She confronts Catherine who looks at her with pity and tell her that it’s no big deal. Barbara is still really angry, so she decides to take some time off and takes her daughter and servant travelling with her. They first visit Paris and then go to Poland, Barbara’s homeland. The novel ends with her deciding to stay in Poland and leaving the court behind.

As you can tell from the review, the book doesn’t really talk about Catherine the Great that much, it’s more about Barbara and her life and how it relates to the royal court. And actually, that’s one of my critiques of the book. It’s misleading in its title and cover blurb. It doesn’t really tell the story of Sophie’s rise to becoming Catherine the Great. We’re only given side hints as to what type of character Sophie possesses. Hence, our view of Sophie/ Catherine depends on our own individual interpretation. However, even then, it’s difficult to feel too connected to Sophie, because she just doesn’t feature predominantly. If anything, I felt like we got more of a glimpse into Empress Elizabeth and her court. We learn more about Elizabeth’s lifestyle and feelings and motivations, then we do about Sophie. And more than that, we learn extensively about Barbara. At times, it felt like this book was about Barbara who accidentally fell into the royal court and her life that followed, vs. Barbara as a proxy for readers to experience Sophie’s rise to power. On that note, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because on her own, Barbara is a decent character. She’s definitely flawed and does unlikeable things at times, but she’s also quite engaging, or at least I thought so. I enjoyed reading about her life outside the palace and her various thought processes. I just wish that the author/ publishers had been more honest in their descriptions about this book.

Which brings me to my second point, I actually quite enjoyed the writing in the novel. It was clear and understandable. I also found the descriptions of the Russian Royal court to be quite apt and well done. It didn’t feel too overly-descriptive and I quite enjoyed the little touches Ms. Stachniak added, like when talking about how the characters would drink kvass vs just using the english translation of the word (beer-like drink). They helped the book have an authentic, historical feel. All in all, a pretty enjoyable historical fiction read. Albeit more geared toward a specific era in time vs. a specific person in history.

My rating: read this if you’re curious about what the Russian Royal Court was like, but you can skip it if you want to read about Catherine the Great and her rise to power.

The Crown TV Series Review

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It’s difficult for me to start this review today, because I know that my words will not do justice to the show. But I feel like it’s necessary for me to write anyway because failure to write about this show is akin to letting it down as well. So let’s get on with it.

The Crown is a Netflix series that premiered November 2016 and consists of 10 hour-long episodes, at least in the first season. It purports to tell the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s succession to the Crown in 1952 and also details some of the politics surrounding the early years of her reign. Simply put, it is a biography of sorts. As such, it showcases events like the abdication crisis of 1936, the death of George VI, PM Churchill’s resignation, Princess Margaret-Peter Townsend scandal, and the marriage of the Queen and Prince Philip (and the ensuing marital strifes).

In terms of reviewing, I’m going to break it down and not write a whole lot. There is way too much for me to unpack in each individual episode so attempting to analyze the entire series in a single post is absurd. As such, I’ll touch upon a few things.

Firstly, in terms of cinamatography, it’s top-notch. As some of you may know, I’m a really, really visual person. So this means, that not only am I attracted to and enthralled by lavish attention to details in depictions, but I’m also very particular about it as well. To my delight, the series excelled in it. Each scene was laid out in a really great way and directed very well as well. And the accuracy in the clothing worn by the various members of the Royal Family was surreal. As a history buff, I have poured over photographs showcasing the Queen’s early years. Hence, I got really, really excited every time I recognized some of the Queen’s outfits and just how much detail was put into each one. For example, her wedding day look has been matched by the creators, right down to the hairstyle.

Which also brings me to the actors. Queen Elizabeth II was portrayed by Claire Foy who did a tremendous job. Throughout the show, the Crown is referred to as a burden, and Foy did a magnificent job showing how difficult it was to balance being the Crown and being a person, i.e. mother, wife, sister. As the show pointed out, the monarch is not supposed to be an opinionated, loud, entertaining person, it is merely a symbol, an impartial figurehead who unites the people. Foy also has really great chemistry with Matt Smith who plays Prince Philip. There are moments where the two characters don’t even say anything but you can still feel the love or tension between them. Matt also did a phenomenal job playing Prince Philip as the resentful consort. On that note, I really appreciated how the writers did not shy away from showing him as the racist and asshole person he is. Similarly, the supporting Royal Family cast acts really well as well. However, the stand-out performance, in my opinion, was John Lithgow as Sir Winston Churchill. The first time Lithgow appeared on screen, I got chills because it felt like I was really seeing Churchill in the flesh. Which is also quite a feat considering the fact that Lithgow is an American! In the role, he disappears and only Churchill remains; a fabulous performance!

On that note, I think I should also talk about the writer’s, or rather writer, for a second. The show is written by Peter Morgan who also wrote the award-winning film, The Queen. Morgan is a fantastic writer and the subtlety he instills in each episode the the various dialogues is a treat to watch. And the show doesn’t just address the history of the Queen and her family. It also depicts the history of England itself and the political struggles the political parties face, along with the Queen. The script, in my opinion, plays quite a large role in how the show comes across. In other words, the strong script elevates the show and the actors.

And finally, the soundtrack for this show is amazing. I cannot get enough of the main title/ duck shoot song. I’m not quite sure who composed the latter, either Hans Zimmer or Rupert Gregson-Williams, but either way, it’s phenomenal and so versatile. For example, it was used to highlight the changes that were coming in Elizabeth’s life and her steps toward embracing them (i.e. becoming Queen eventually). Yet, the song was also effectively used to highlight the chaos that came after King George VI’s death. Just wonderfully amazing really.

I really enjoyed watching and highly recommend the show. Plus, season 2 has already been confirmed!

My rating: Definitely watch it if you’re a history (and political) buff, anglophile or Royal Family enthusiast!