The last time I wrote about Matt Damon was his almost solo performance as a marooned astronaut in ‘The Martian‘. I commented he had a habit of choosing storylines in which his character always gets rescued. In Ridley Scott’s medievil epic Damon rescues others for a change, principally his wife. This film carries the same director and cinematographer and lots of the same set designers.
One of the reasons I wanted to see the film, besides never missing a Ridley movie, was being told it had a battle in Scotland at its centre, a reconstruction. This was back in the day when the Auld Alliance fell apart, albeit for a short time, with Normandy as it was then. I have to advise moviegoers the battle is there alright, all thirty seconds of it, in woods that could have been on the backlot of Pinewood studios. No Scots are identifiable, we get a rustle in the bushes followed by a whoosh of fiery arrows.
To the weaknesses first. The Last Duel is an ambitious text demanding a European auteur who understands human complexity and psychology. Only in the third act does the plot get close to contemporary parallels it so cleary hopes to illustrate, namely the violent sexual assault of a women and the assault of her mind thereafter that she is forced to undergo by prurient men in a trial to prove her innocence. The film could lose almost an hour of its two-and-a-half hour length, an hour devoted to the trial wherein lies all the drama, tension, and male guile and guilt.
You can see why the film was cold-shouldered when premiered at Cannes. For all the film’s MeToo credentials, it stays determinedly bogged down in its own misogyny and macho soup. This is a Hollywood movie, remember, with big stars, so women have to be depicted as saintly wives or randy sluts. There is nothing in between, except dried old mothers and peasant women in moth-eaten sack cloth. The film’s loss of face has to be disappointing for its creative team of writer-actors. Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
Initiator of the project, Holofcener needs more of an introduction. He mother was once a set designer, her father acted on Broadway, her stepfather was Woody Allen’s long-time producer. (To get into the movie business it helps to have good connections.) Holofcener was apprentice editor on Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and her films have all been compared to those of Woody Allen, wealthy characters, talkative and funny, her last, Enough Said, in 2013. Her films are generally interested in female consciousness and young woman’s merciless emotional maturity. (Her description.) This is Holofcener’s first commercial film and probably why she teamed up with Scott of Gladiator, plus Damon and Affleck to get the historical battle side of the plot as plausible as possible.
One other reason the film was not overly praised, the plot is a straight steal from the master filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon, in which the attack on a woman is seen from three sides, the woman’s memory, the attacker and her husband’s recall. That film remains a truly great piece of original story telling. The Last Duel is merely entertaining. It doesn’t leave you questioning male attitudes as you exit the cinema. It does not teach you anything, and some dim men will think it is all about a woman’s duty to stand by their man. What lingers in your thoughts is Hollywood got the obligatory scene of violence on women repeated three times.
To my mind, what irked the most is a film supposedly investigating rape, is really a film about men in armour, carousing, fighting, and jousting. It should be better than Hollywood swordplay with penis and steel.
It is based on Eric Jager’s bestseller The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial By Combat in Medieval France. In 1386, the Norman knight Jean de Carrouges demands of King Charles VI the right to a fight-to-the-death with Jacques Le Gris, his one-time close friend with whom he gets embroiled over a land and military captaincy dispute. After much shouting and sueing, the king grants de Carrouges his wish, more looking for a day’s enjoyment watching the killing arts than justice.
For most of its length the story is told from the perspective of the victim’s husband, It ends with a well-known Ridley Scott farewell, the extended hand-to-hand battle watched by a baying crowd – the gist of Gladiator – followed by the birth of a baby. (Not a spoiler.)
Damon plays the pompous and quick to anger, Jean de Carrouges, and the visually rivetting Adam Driver plays his evil nemesis, Jacques Le Gris, a man always on the make, even to losing the trust of friends just to gain a bit of rape on the side. ‘Le Gris’ is a wonderfully onomatopoeic name for a villain.
Ben Afflick takes a blonde-hair role as friend and employer to Le Gris, Pierre d’Alençon, offering him free goes at roistering, or is it rogering, three in a bed. (I remain unconvinced a raddled alcoholic can bed three women simultaneously while intoxified.) Pierre d’Alençon becomes Le Gris’ patron but lives to regret it. While Afflick has always had the problem of being a really nice guy who should never play bad guys, Driver is well-suited to his role, carpetbagger, liar, and self-pitying bastard of the first degree. In this case, Adam Driver is as watchable as ever, that is, ever smirk, glance, and body language.
Accents are all over the place; is it north France, middle France, the south downs of merry England, eastern Europe? We do not quite get a “Go, go, go!”, or a Bronx “Yonder is da castle where ma true love dwells”, yet the speeches don’t always exise the wrong idiom. It manages to avoid idiosyncratic Americanisms though we feel sure we will hear one. There is one ‘I beseech you, sire’, to allay our fears, as for a heightened language, none is evident, but it does stay clear of post-modern banality – just.
Those who rise above the believable derry-do, clanking metal, whinnying horses, mud, gory blood and rooms lit by a hundred candles and a roaring log fire, the women stand out way above the men, though too many play super-numerary roles. I noticed Harriet Walter as Nicole de Carrouges, mother to Matt Damon’s Jean. (How time flies. I remember meeting her when she was in a Shakespearian production at Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre.) She is alternately, steely, affectionate, wise, of smart counsel, but knowing her place as a woman in a man’s world, useless to help in the final conflict.
It’s when the film finally gives Jodie Comer as Marguerite her freedom to act more than a piece of meat, in the third chapter, that The Last Duel elevates to a tense, emotionally powerful portrait of systemic misogyny. Here we get close to the best dialogue that might have been an Arthur Miller first draft.
Surrounding by powerful men, Comer shows how her character is absoluely alone, left to save herself from the possibility of burnt at the stake if proven a liar. She exudes real strength of character, loyalty, honesty and nobility none of the men have managed to show in all their dealings with each other. It is here where Comer really takes over with an Oscar-worthy performance, and gives truth to the film’s marketing tagline of “the woman who defied a nation.”
Considering everything is bathed in a cold blue light to denote Normandy in winter, Marguerite is far from the frigid aristocrat. She has something to say to us, and to her husband post-trial, the moment actually the strongest scene between Comer and Damon. Marguerite really ought to have been centre of the drama for its full length.
After almost two years watching old films on television, cinemas closed, it was good to be in the back row again taking notes, though wearing a Covid mask. No doubt there are other films in town that might be of greater intellectual weight, at least The Last Duel was not Monty Python and the Holy Grail – 2.
The film can be summed up in one word ‘gritty’. Ridley Scott’s training in television commercials keeps the pace moving, the camera work excellent, music forgettable, but enough dramatic material, commited performances, and moments of gruesome action to stop you looking for a break in the cinema bar.
- STAR RATING: THREE STARS
- Cast: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Afflick
- Director: Ridley Scott
- Writer: Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, Ben Afflick, based on the book by Eric Jager
- Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
- Composer: Harry Greghson Williams
- Certificate: 18
- Duration: 2 hours 32 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?