Sword fights abound literally and figuratively in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which finds the legendary director covering familiar red stained territory in a unique storytelling format. Based on a true incident that transpired in late 14th century France, Good Will Hunting scribes Matt Damon and Ben Affleck collaborate with Nicole Holofcener for this three tiered tale of a tragic crime mixed with a touch of black comedy. It explores the horrors of machismo at a time when women were seen as property by the standards of thought and law. The most fascinating aspect of the film (and most appalling) is that the three principals may truly believe they’re the victim, including two that should not.
Shot in gray with a focus on grey areas, Duel is fashioned into triangular chapters (from a novel by Eric Jager). Each outlines the plot from these perspectives: Jean de Carrouges (Damon), who fancies himself a brave and noble knight; the philandering squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) who has the ear of the authoritative and even more philandering Count Pierre d’Alencon (Affleck); and Jean’s educated and strong wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Jean and Marguerite’s marriage is one of convenience and real estate opportunities for the former. He also desires a male heir that Marguerite has yet to produce. Jacques, meanwhile, has access to influence that Jean doesn’t possess. When he becomes smitten with his friend’s bride, the power dynamic turns more dangerous.
An accusation of rape is made in an era when most women didn’t dare do so (made clear in a potent monologue by Jean’s emotionally barren mother played by Harriet Walter). 600 plus years ago, that meant Jean and Jacques would participate in the picture’s title if a trial permitted it (and allow for Scott to play in some Gladiator type set pieces). Where the screenplay derives some humor is that the two leading men seem convinced that they are the aggrieved party and are oblivious to the damage inflicted on Marguerite. As nearly every male character is given a chance to bask in his laurels, we detect plenty of side eyes from the women around them. I suspect those sharp edges come courtesy of Holofcener’s script portions.
The Last Duel is fueled by Comer’s central performance as a victim who spoke up centuries before hashtags existed. The struggles to hold her perpetrator responsible are both centuries old and of today. Didn’t she remark that he was attractive? Maybe her no was a yes and she enjoyed it. Damon and especially Driver add sturdy support and Affleck commands the screen in his relatively brief runtime (once you get past the odd looking wigs).
The chaptered structure is occasionally repetitive. However, by the time the literal swordplay commences, the time spent with the trio builds a sense of genuine tension. Marguerite will be punished by a grisly death unless Jacques succeeds. In other words, her words mean little and she must rely on her husband to determine whether her time is up. That’s the wound that cuts the deepest as we await their fates.
***1/2 (out of four)