The Last Duel

MA 15+, 153 minutes

4 Stars

 

Powerful and immersive, despite making a shift away from the usual driven narrative style and embarking into 14th century gender politics

Review by © Jane Freebury

Instead of a story arc that develops through the traditional three stages, The Last Duel is told from three different angles, leading up to a duel where a knight and squire fight to the death over a woman’s honour. A story structure advancing competing truths isn’t the kind of approach we’ve come to associate with Ridley Scott, although it suggests the veteran director doesn’t have a tin ear for changing tastes among moviegoers.

It is set long ago, in 14th century France, with a struggle at its core over truth and justice that will resonate today, and is loosely based on a trial by combat, the last officially sanctioned duel over contested evidence. It came about when a French noblewoman accused a man, the feted favourite of a relative of King Charles VI, of rape.

The charge was a long shot by the husband, the irascible Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) who already had form in litigation. He was away on business. Business in those days being fighting battles on behalf of the French king. His erstwhile good friend and neighbour, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), broke into his home and raped his wife.

Was it consensual? The assault was, as they say, a ‘he said, she said’ situation, but Sir Jean believed his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), and laid their lives on the line to prove her innocent.

Fascinating to see Comer/Villanelle as a chattel, but it’s Affleck in spikey blond hair and goatee who is the revelation

Behind the facial fuzz and prosthetic scarring, Damon is not easily discernible but Driver might just have grown the hair slightly longer. It is fascinating to see the talented Comer as a chattel to her husband after her moves as a glamorous assassin in the TV serial Killing Eve, but it is Ben Affleck, sporting spikey blond hair and goatee, who is the revelation here. As the outrageous Count Pierre d’Alencon, he is assisted by some of the film’s best lines.

Matt Damon, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck in The Last Duel. Image courtesy Twentieth Century Studios

The marriage between Sir Jean and the beautiful Marguerite had been engineered to replenish the coffers and restore prestige, but the shifting sands of influence at the French court had seen de Carrouges on the outer. Le Gris was favoured by the district overlord, d’Alencon.

Was Marguerite of good character and repute? Did she lead Le Gris on, was it consensual or forced? Were her husband to lose the duel, Marguerite would be pronounced guilty and condemned to die by conflagration at the stake. A pretty compelling disincentive to speaking up.

Drawn from the book of the same name by Eric Jager in 2004, the screenplay represents a collaboration between Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, a respected filmmaker in her own right. Damon wrote the first chapter from his character’s perspective, Affleck the second championing Le Gris, and Holofcener the third, the woman’s point-of-view. The screenwriting credits for Damon and Affleck is a reminder that Good Will Hunting won them a best original screenplay Oscar early in their careers.

The Hundred Year War with England was grinding on unabated, and war was an everyday event in the backstory. The distinctive lines of the cathedral of Notre Dame were emerging on the Parisian skyline, and yet Enlightenment thinking was on its way. Not soon enough for women who remained the mere possessions of men, even the noblewomen. Justice issues were moving over to the courts, but it was still dispensed by the most powerful in the patriarchy, beginning with the king.

Flamboyant and powerfully immersive, though a shift away from the usual driven narrative

The beautifully made and flamboyant films by Ridley Scott that have become contemporary classics, like Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, are compelling to this day. His latest film is a shift away from his usual strenuous narrative style but is still inhabited with distinctly drawn and colourful characters, in a tussle over right and wrong.

And as always with this director, The Last Duel is a thoroughly immersive experience with powerful use of mise-en-scene and sound. The pounding of horses’ hooves and the clash of weapons in hand-to-hand combat don’t dissipate quickly after final credits roll.

Scott is a director, not a writer, having only five writing credits. It’s a reminder of how well he performs in the directorial role, pulling it all together. With fifty-six films to his name and counting, it will be interesting to see how Gladiator 2, now in the pipeline, shapes up for this century.

First published by the Canberra Times on 6 November 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes