Anticipation has been steadily building for this adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling saga about Saxons and Vikings, the creation of England, and the legend of Alfred the Great. It’s been billed as the BBC’s answer to Game Of Thrones (although don’t mention that to the makers), and a total reinvention of the historical drama. But does it live up to the hype?
Based on the first episode, I would argue that mostly, yes it does. For those tuning in, you are in for a treat. It’s a brutal, bloody, and engaging drama, which feels real, eschews flashy obvious CGI in pursuit of making you believe you’re there as the Vikings land, axe and sword meet shield, and people live a life of violence. It absolutely flies by too – I couldn’t believe that the hour was up when the credits rolled, and could have happily have sat there for several episodes more. Which is a good sign.
Set in the 9th century, the country we know as England does not exist. Instead, the separate Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex co-exist with competing kings. However, they seem powerless against the onslaught of Danes, raiders from another land who are defeating the Saxon realms one by one. Soon only Wessex will stand, the Last Kingdom. And in its hour of need, a studious, pious man called Alfred will lead them, forging a new country in the process.
This is the epic sweep of the grand story. Our smaller story is the tale of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the dispossessed lord of a Northumbrian holding who is captured by the Danes as a child and raised as one of them. It is his journey back to the Saxons, and to reclaim his birthright that forms the dramatic arc of the series.
For those familiar with the books, the story stays very close to what you know. The main beats are there, nothing is changed for change’s sake, but the script is very economical. The first two books have been adapted for this first series, which means we get through a lot in this first hour. However, it’s been paced well enough that you don’t feel shortchanged too much, although a bit more time with Uhtred and his new family wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Character development is quick and to the point, and mostly effective. A lot is told in actions rather than words – for instance Rune Temte as main Dane chief Ubba doesn’t have a lot to say, but he dominates proceedings with a laugh, roar, or look. That goes for all the cast actually. They make their scenes count.
The only actor is was hard to read too much into is Alexander Dreymon, who plays the lead character Uhtred. This is through no fault of his own, he just doesn’t have a lot to do in the first episode, as it’s mainly setting the scene for his life. Instead, his character is a child through most of it, played by Tom Taylor. And he is superb. Amongst a cast featuring Rutger Hauer, Matthew MacFayden, and Ian Hart, this young boy shines. So with no disrespect to Alexander Dreymon, I was quite sad when it was time for Uhtred to grow up…
As mentioned earlier though, one of the things The Last Kingdom does absolutely superbly is get a sense of reality across. Established in pretty much the first scene, where they’ve put a camera on a real life Viking longship, you know that you’ll be spending time in real sets, watching real battles. Does this make some of the action seem small? Perhaps in scale, but not in stakes. And probably more true to life as well, as there weren’t huge battles with hundreds of thousands of men attacking. What they’ve done with the budget is frankly incredible, and while I worry about some of the later scenes, this first episode allayed my concerns that it would look cheap – as British drama is sometimes guilty of…
So, The Last Kingdom’s first episode sets up the world neatly. You’re introduced to both the Danes and the Saxons, with plenty of shades of grey about both (in the Q&A afterwards, it was neatly summed up with the line, ‘You might want the Saxons to win, but you would want to be a Dane’). The political turmoil is neatly sketched out, the brutality of life in this time shown more than once, and our main characters motivation for the series set up. All very neat. And all guaranteed to have you watching the second episode I reckon – especially as that’s when we’ll get to meet Alfred the Great.
The Last Kingdom starts on BBC America on Saturday the 10th of October at 10pm in the US, and on BBC Two on Thursday the 22nd of October at 9pm.
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