The Plot: 14th Century France. Honourable knight Jean (Matt Damon) serves local nobleman Count Pierre (Ben Affleck). Jean is not poor, but he still needs money to run his household and property. The sound and fury of war is profitable for him, but this means being away from home for long periods. He marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer), a forthright young woman who knows her place in this man’s world but is not afraid to question it. When Marguerite accuses Jean’s loyal friend Jacques (Adam Driver) of an egregious crime against her, Jean must face a difficult choice. But even more difficult is the future of their marriage and whether Marguerite can be believed by the royal court. The truth will out eventually but it might be fatal…
The Verdict: Ridley Scott is not one to rest on his considerable laurels, retire to play golf and watch other people’s movies. Now 83 and still working away busily, he has not one but two films out in the coming weeks. While we wait for the intriguing-looking House Of Gucci, first up is The Last Duel – otherwise known as the film that endeared Matt Damon to the Irish public (Cahir Castle in Tipperary features prominently). If The Last Duel is anything to go by, Scott is still as energetic and engaged a filmmaker as he’s always been. He’s a consummate storyteller, zeroing in on stories that interest him and by turn stories that should interest us, his audience too. He’s found a real meaty one in the form of The Last Duel, but which he spins with a modern perspective on male-female relationships in a very different time.
The film is based on a real story that occurred in 14th Century France and which lead to the end of trial by combat in legal cases involving a woman’s honour. The story was brought to Scott by Damon, from the book by Eric Jager. Working with Ben Affleck for the first time since their Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting, Damon also brought in writer/director Nicole Holofcener to give the film an authentic feminine voice too. The film is structured Rashomon-style, using the three-act structure to relay events from three differing perspectives – the truth according to Jean, Jacques and Marguerite. But as we often know in legal dramas, there are three stories – one story, another story and the truth. The Last Duel is not so much a legal drama though, but a full-blooded historical thriller with a medieval theatre angle to it too.
Scott doesn’t pull any punches in his approach to either Marguerite’s accusation of rape by Jacques or in the visceral duel which bookends the film. He confronts both of them head on in this mature film which deals with distressing themes but with a steely and well-defined sense of purpose. The differing perspectives allow for different interpretations on character motivations. The bullish, at-times cold Jean is not quite the man we think he is, his first reaction to doubt his wife of her accusation. The warmer, more passionate Jacques defiantly flicks away the accusation, convincing Count Pierre of his innocence and an ineffectual, bored king (Alex Lawther) who couldn’t care less about the situation or his subjects.
The one thing that Scott doesn’t doubt is Marguerite’s rape, showing it not once but twice to re-inforce her word against his. It’s not as graphic as you might fear but it’s as disturbing as it can be. It’s a bold choice on Scott’s part to revisit that scene from a different and ultimately more important perspective, but it also has the unfortunate effect of being somewhat exploitative in its powerplay of a man’s word against a woman’s. However, Scott quickly redresses that imbalance by focusing on the aftermath on Marguerite as she fights for justice in court against the French patriarchy. Then Jean must face Jacques for a final determination in a joust to the death. And while the last duel is in itself a thrilling, metal-clashing and bone-crunching confrontation, it’s not what this strongly atmospheric film is ultimately about.
When Scott burst onto the feature film scene with his startling, beautifully-composed debut The Duellists, it was also about two Frenchmen from another time caught in a duel over a woman’s honour. Scott has recalibrated his view for his latest film with a crystal-clear female perspective on its male-dominated world, as Marguerite stands by her word even in the face of possible death. He’s been a consistent relator of women’s perspectives and Jodie Comer, cementing her star-is-born status after Free Guy, is a solid presence as his mouthpiece. This is in a time when women were chattels and rape was a crime against status and property rather than a woman’s honour. Damon, Driver and Affleck are reliably solid but it’s Comer who is the revelation here as Marguerite pushes at the boundaries of her oppressive society that regards rape as a business matter. The Last Duel is provocative and thrilling food for thought and delivers what it sets out to do in nearly every regard. It certainly leaves a lasting impression and there’s no getting off Scott-free from that, Jacques. Bravo indeed.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Leaves an impression
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Marton Csokas.