It’s fair to say that Ridley Scott is one of the best directors to handle this specific type of drama. With films like Kingdom of Heaven and The Duellists under his belt, Scott knows how to handle this kind of story. It may not always work (such as his version of Robin Hood), but at the very least the films will be well directed. This film though interested me more through the involvement of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as writers and I was interested to see what they did with this kind of drama. Watching the film, I thought it was a pretty strong film.
The film is set over several decades in the late 1300s, focusing on the lives of Jean de Carrouge, Margueritte de Carrouge and Jacques Le Gris. The film shows the growing rivalry between Jean de Carrouge and Le Gris, leading to the events where Le Gris is accused of rape by Margueritte. The events after this lead to Jean de Carrouge challenging Le Gris to a duel, with the duel between the two being the last officially sanctioned trial by combat in France. The interesting thing about the film is how it is divided. It takes more of a Rashomon style with the film being divided into the version of events told by Jean de Carrouge, Margueritte and Le Gris. Through each of the stories we see the different sides of the characters, particularly the way that de Carrouge and Le Gris try to hide their darker impulses from their version of events, making themselves out to be the heroes. For example, a running plot point is a dispute over land rights. In de Carrouge’s version it’s presented as a great wrong with him being swindled out of land that was rightfully his, whilst in Le Gris’ version, the land was never de Carrouge’s to begin with and de Carrouge is an idiot who doesn’t understand property laws. The most interesting stuff though comes through with Margueritte’s version of the story. Through her, we see the way that women are treated as property, with the crime at the core of the film being, in the eyes of the law at the time, a crime against the property of de Carrouge rather than an attack on a woman. Her version also shows the true nature of each character, de Carrouge being a brutal idiot and Le Gris being a complete scumbag and the ultimate example of someone who thinks he is entitled to sex. There are interesting parallels made between the attitudes towards sexual assualt in the law at the time and today, there are some discussions in the film that wouldn’t feel out of place in things like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. There are some things about the presentation of the film that don’t work, such as having the rape be shown twice, but on the whole it works really well in creating the tone of the film.
The performances as well are uniformly strong. The obvious standout is Jodie Comer as Margueritte. She plays more of a passive role in the first two, because that’s how de Carrouge and Le Gris see her, but when she becomes the focus of the film, she shows Margueritte to be an incredible intelligent, thoughtful and savvy presence. She knows how best to play the system and knows what the best solutions to the problems her estate is facing and when she has to navigate the system after she makes her accusation, she shows the pain of the character in knowing that the truth and her life will be discredited at every opportunity to try and absolve Le Gris of guilt. Matt Damon is also strong as De Carrouge, mainly in how differently he plays the character in each segment. When it’s De Carrouge’s segment, he plays the character as this noble hero, to emphasise that’s how he views himself, but in the other segments he plays up the idiotic and brutal sides of the character, showing him to be someone who is at home in war, but doesn’t work outside that narrow worldview, and shows his lack of compassion and understanding towards Margueritte. Adam Driver meanwhile does a good job at showing the sleezy side of Le Gris well. He shows how he thinks he is a charming ladies man, but underneath his charm he is exploiting women and using his education as a cover for his actions and the doublethink he does so that he genuinely believes he did not rape Margueritte. The chemistry that Driver and Damon have is strong, showing the twists and turns in their relationship and building a believable rivalry. Of the supporting cast, Ben Affleck steals the film whenever he’s on screen as Pierre d’Alençon, the local ruler of the area and whose trust Le Gris has. He gives a more broadly comedic performance in the film, showing the character to be a complete scumbag, whiling away his days with debauchery whilst being completely inept at ruling, willing to cover those he favours. His performance feels the most modern in the film, but it works to highlight the parallels between then and now. There are also strong performances from Harriet Walter, Nathaniel Parker, Adam Nagaitis, Alex Lawther and Željko Ivanek, who all work well in adding to the power and world of the film.
The technical elements of the film are as strong as is to be expected from a Ridley Scott film. There are very few people as good at directing battle scenes in this era of history as Ridley Scott and he puts all of his skill to good use here. The battle scenes are brutal, showing the reality of warfare at the time effectively and this comes to a head in the depiction of the duel which is a tour de force of violence, using the way de Carrouge and Le Gris fight to show the nature of their characters. The production design and costume design do strong work in evoking the feel of the era, whilst the hair and makeup is used effectively to highlight the murky natures of the characters, particularly de Carrouge, helping to demonstrate that he is more comfortable at war than in peace.
Overall, I found The Last Duel to be a pretty compelling film on the whole. Whilst there are some things I think could have been done differently, the intelligent script from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener (who I think was responsible for the most compelling aspects of the film, at least based on what I’ve heard about the making of the film), does great work at crafting a complex, powerful story that demonstrates how these attitudes towards women during this era of history have never really gone away.
My Rating: 4/5