…And I’ve already downloaded the Sussex folklore map, which is a terrific piece of work –
The BBC’s adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s epic Saxon Stories series of historical novels began last Thursday evening, and for an opening episode – saddled with the usual problems of establishing setting, characters, and plot – it was pretty promising.
I haven’t read the original novels – indeed, I must confess I haven’t read any of Cornwell’s work – but I am certainly familiar with the time and place the tale is set – Ninth Century England – having long since fallen under the spell of the story of the Anglo-Saxons, that brave, melancholic people who created the English nation, and gave it its identity, its language, and many of its customs, leaving behind a rich cultural legacy which endures to this day.
Cornwell’s retelling of that story begins in 866, in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, with Viking longships bearing down on the coast, and a young boy named Uhtred, of Bebbanburg (later to become Bamburgh Castle), caught up in the dangerous battle between his father and the Danes. When his father is killed – and there was a great early scene where the Saxons were trapped between two Danish shield walls, and had to push against them like some particularly lethal game of rugby – Uhtred is adopted by the Viking Ragnar the Fearless (you’ve got to love those Viking names), and his blind father Ravn (played here in a lovely little cameo from Rutger Hauer). He adapts well to his new life, and before you know it he’s all grown up and heading off into the woods for a spot of (tastefully filmed) recreational sex with Brida, who like him is a Saxon orphan brought up by the Danes.
But while they’re away, Ragnar’s hall – and Ragnar himself – are burnt to the ground by Kjartan, an old enemy, with the apparent connivance of Uhtred’s scheming uncle, Aelfric, and Uhtred is out for revenge, and to take back Bebbanburg.
Most of the main characters in the opening episode are fictional, though there was a brief appearance from Guthrum, a real Viking warlord, and – in a trailer for Episode Two – from Alfred the Great, the man with whom Guthrum would have an ultimate showdown at the Battle of Edington in 878.
The title – The Last Kingdom – refers to Wessex, the last Saxon kingdom to hold out against the Danes after they had overrun the rest of the country.
Inevitably, the new series has been compared to Game of Thrones, which Cornwell amusingly dismisses in an interview with the Radio Times, and indeed it’s rather more low key than that comparison would suggest, lacking (so far at least) the boobs and beheadings that characterise so many GOT episodes (though there was still a fair bit of gore, and Matthew Macfadyen, as Uhtred’s father, gets a very nasty sword to the neck).
Randy fourteen-year-old boys might be disappointed, then, but I think The Last Kingdom may provide subtler charms, and the story of how Alfred and his descendants, against the odds, rolled back the Danish conquerors, and created a united England, is always worth hearing again. And, what’s more, it’s true.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
– Macbeth, Act V, Sc. 5
William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth around the time that James VI of Scotland acceded to the throne of England (as James I) in 1603, and its bloody and supernatural tale of ruthless ambition is thought to have been influenced by the events of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Many of the plotters came from the Midlands, and the ringleader, Robert Catesby, grew up in the Forest of Arden, in Warwickshire, which gave its name to the Arden family, of whom Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, was a member. There were many recusants in that part of England at the time – including, some have claimed, Shakespeare himself – and one wonders how far he may have known any of the plotters, or their families, or felt guilt by association?
That is a question for the scholars – but I can cheerfully report in my non-scholarly way that the latest film adaptation of perhaps his most famous and popular play is a powerful and atmospheric version, filmed in England and Scotland, and though it doesn’t always give us a sense of the title character’s internal battles, it is nevertheless ambitious in its scope and visual flair (with some superb cinematography from Adam Arkapaw).
Any cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, David Hayman and Sean Harris is one I’m happy to watch any day of the week, and though only one of these actors is actually Scottish, there are no embarrassing Groundskeeper Willie-type accents (Cotillard speaks in a clipped RP that is more English than Scottish, but it doesn’t detract from her performance).
Directed by the Australian Justin Kurzel, there is a link between this film and Slow West, which I reviewed back in July. Same star (Fassbender); Scotland, both real and imagined (one of the main characters in Slow West, Jay, is Scottish, as is the film’s director, John Maclean); and same composer, Jed Kurzel (brother of Justin), who also scored The Babadook. His haunting music is subtly and beautifully paced, and the two films could almost be companion pieces.
The film opens as Macbeth and his wife bury their young child, and, later on, when Lady Macbeth is overcome by remorse for all that she has done, she addresses her “Out, damned spot!” soliloquy to the shade of her dead son, and Kurzel uses a similar device for other characters – Macbeth himself keeps seeing the ghost of a young soldier killed in the battle against Macdonwald, and when Banquo admits his fears of what Macbeth has done to gain the throne, he does so to his young son, Fleance, who escapes the murderers who kill his father with the aid of the Three Witches.
The Witches are a constant presence in the film, often witnesses to events even when they are not active participants, and though spoken of in supernatural terms (“they made themselves air”), they appear as unsettling but very much corporeal beings, weighed down by the horror of their foresight, but unable to prevent what they know is coming. As Macbeth descends into paranoia and madness, he becomes both hyperactive (at one point we see Fassbender running up and down his chamber) and oddly detached, seemingly unmoved by his own wife’s death (“She should have died hereafter”). As he oversees the execution of Macduff’s wife and children – they are burned at the stake outside the castle walls, in one of the film’s most memorably disturbing scenes – we know that this is a man hollowed out by murder and ambition.
The film is bookended by two terrific battle sequences – first, when Macbeth defeats the forces of Macdonwald, and then, at the end, the final showdown with Macduff, when Birnan Wood comes to Dunsinane in a sea of fire.
Shakespeare’s words are delivered simply and naturalistically, and though there was the odd bit of mumbling – par for the course in a lot of dramas these days – it wasn’t a major problem, and I would think that if you wanted to introduce someone to this play, or to Shakespeare more generally, this film would be an excellent place to start. It’s rousing and well told, and preserves the mystery at the heart of the story, which keeps drawing audiences back, time after time, into its dark embrace.