The Last Kingdom TV series (2015 – 2022) was a pretty glorious adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories. Like the books, it played merry hell with historical fact, but won fans over with action and heart. The tale of Saxon-born, Danish-raised warrior Uhtred Ragnarsson pinballing between enmity and mentorship with Saxon kings as he sought to reclaim his familial lands struck the right note between sincerity, humour and bloody action.
Over five seasons, the show covered the first ten of Cornwell’s novels before ending, which left three books unadapted. Enter: Netflix movie Seven Kings Must Die to wrap things up. We join Uhtred several years after his return to Bebbanburg, when Edward the Elder’s succession is being contested by sons Aelfweard and Aethelstan, and Danish invader Anlaf is making dangerous alliances in the north. Immediately, we’re back in the thick of it: ungrateful Saxon kings, scheming traitors and more names beginning with A than anybody can make sense of.
Zero time is wasted getting this busy story going. Like the start of a new series, it’s straight into the plot, which sees an older Uhtred pulled out of retirement to once again clean up a royal Saxon mess. That’s been caused by King Edward’s young successor Aethelstan (Harry Gilby), whose internal struggle has left him vulnerable to radicalisation from new advisor Ingilmundr (Laurie Davidson). We drop in on multiple locations from Glastonbury to Aylesbury to Bamburgh to York to Winchester to the Isle of Man and more, and on multiple people scheming to seize power.
What’s missing from this packed, location-hopping story are many of the characters we knew and loved from the series. Uhtred’s there with brothers in arms Finan, Sihtric, Father Pyrlig and Aldhelm, but that’s our lot. Hild, Eadith, Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra, Aethelflaed’s daughter Aelfwynn and Queen Aelswith – all carefully preserved to survive the end of the TV show – are missing and their off-screen deaths go unmentioned. It feels abrupt and… callous? The Last Kingdom’s women were always central to it success. Not to give them an ending or barely a namecheck seems like a betrayal.
Character churn is built in to a story as violent and long-ranging as this one, but no attempt has been made to fill the gap. We get seven kings in Martha Hillier’s screenplay, yes, but Elaine Cassidy’s strong performance as Queen Eadgifu aside, there’s barely a woman between them. It’s like holding a reunion but only sending out half the invitations.
Without the relationships carefully built up by the series over the years, Seven Kings Must Die lacks warmth, but certainly doesn’t lack for action. The complicated alliances and betrayals of the film’s first hour serve to deliver its headline act: a crowd-pleasing extended battle. Director Ed Bazelgette, who gave us the best battle sequences in the series, hits all the old favourites: an outnumbered army, a cunning military ploy from Uhtred, last-minute reinforcements, blood and mud flying, and of course, multiple cries of The Last Kingdom’s battlefield catchphrase “Shield WAAAAAALLL!”
It’s a victory lap, essentially, for Alexander Dreymon’s Uhtred, a repeat performance of his greatest hits. Fans have seen it all before – Danes trying to lure him into betraying the Saxon crown while the Saxon crown abuses him, his kickass mastery at climactic battles…
Dreymon does a great job as ever, and we see plenty of Uhtred the warrior and Uhtred the leader, but without his lovers or his daughter Stiorra, there’s a little less of Uhtred the man. Having resolved most of his conflicts and grief during the TV series, there’s a sense that his story had already come to a satisfying conclusion before this film started. The result is almost two hours of fast-paced action that underdelivers when it comes to emotion.
That makes sense when you consider that the TV show was able to devote four to five hours of screentime for the first ten books – ample to build beloved characters and guest star enemies before rounding everything off with a pivotal battle. Seven Kings Must Die has under two hours to cover three entire books, making the result understandably overstuffed but also somehow under-filled. It’s a fond farewell to a beloved character that offers closure on the ‘will England be formed?’ question, but doesn’t feel like an essential chapter of this story.
The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die is available to stream now on Netflix.