There's a moment in The Last Kingdom season 5 when we see three generations of women banding together at a time of crisis. It should be a powerful image conveying the strength of their resolve and their love for one another, provoking reflection on how far these characters have come and the challenges they have yet to face. Unfortunately, there was one distracting thought I couldn't shake from my mind: "Why are they all the same age?"
Longtime viewers of The Last Kingdom will know exactly what I'm talking about. The historical drama chronicles how several clashing kingdoms eventually united to form England, spanning approximately 55 years of early history – although you wouldn't know that by looking at the actors' faces. The producers have boldly chosen not to recast any of the adult roles despite several considerable time-jumps over the past five seasons and at this stage that decision is starting to haunt them.
Before I go any further, I wish to clarify that this article is not intended to slight or ridicule The Last Kingdom cast. That they have managed to hold onto these roles for so long is a testament to their strong performances, which have thoroughly entertained a legion of fans for several years – myself among them. But my respect for their work notwithstanding, it's clear that for the past couple of seasons this troupe of actors has been fighting an uphill battle.
Why The Last Kingdom should have copied The Crown’s casting strategy
Take my example from earlier: by the time we reach season 5, Eliza Butterworth, 28, is portraying a woman at least 35 years her senior, a challenge only exacerbated by the fact that her on-screen daughter, played by Millie Brady, is the same age as her in real-life. The latest batch of episodes also introduce her adult granddaughter played by recent Guildhall graduate Phia Saban, who is presumably only a few years younger than her co-stars at most.
Despite the best efforts of all involved, these scenes just never work as well as they could – or should – with more age appropriate actors, suggesting that the disparity between the cast and their characters has simply become too glaring. This issue is by no means limited to the names mentioned above as almost everyone on the show is 'playing older' at this point, including series lead Alexander Dreymon (39 years old in real-life, playing a character who should be at least 65 years old by now).
On a show with a larger budget, perhaps this wouldn't be a problem. We've seen some very impressive age-related visual effects coming out of the major studios recently, including an elderly Chris Evans in Avengers: Endgame and a young Mark Hamill in The Book of Boba Fett. But of course, The Last Kingdom doesn't have access to the same bottomless pit of money that the Walt Disney Company enjoys, so that was never a realistic option in this case.
Still, I have found myself surprised by just how few modifications are made to the actors playing above their age, as it's often hard to spot even a single grey hair on their head. I imagine this would be one of the easier changes to implement in the make-up chair, either with a box of dye or a convincing wig, and might have gone a small distance towards bridging the age gap. However, the more logical solution is obvious (albeit perhaps enraging to die-hard fans): a complete cast change.
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I know that there are many out there who would shudder at the thought of anyone else stepping into Uhtred's boots, but you need only look to The Crown for compelling proof that this strategy can work very effectively. There can be no denying that Claire Foy did a wonderful job portraying a young Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of the Netflix drama, but had she portrayed the monarch in middle-age or even older then things would have quickly fallen apart.
Just imagine if Foy, then 35, had reprised her role for The Crown season 3 and found herself in explosive scenes featuring 29-year-old Josh O'Connor as her son, Prince Charles. It sounds almost farcical to describe and yet that's exactly what has happened here. While we might have been sad to see Foy leave, her departure helped protect the realism of the semi-factual drama and created juicy roles for older actors to sink their teeth into.
Indeed, by comparison, the diversity of ages represented in The Last Kingdom has shrunk significantly over the years, with Adrian Schiller (Aethelhelm) and Cavan Clerkin (Pyrlig) left as the only main cast members over 40 – not counting supporting players Jeppe Beck Laursen (Haesten) and Patrick Robinson (Father Benedict), who have disappointingly minor roles this season.
As mentioned, it's not difficult to understand why The Last Kingdom's producers have been so loyal to their original cast members. Certainly, they are a talented line-up and to swap out key characters – let alone Dreymon's lead – would risk alienating some of the more fervent supporters. But it's a great shame that as the show reaches what should be its triumphant crescendo, pivotal moments are being undermined by this casting oversight.
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