Talk about burying the lead. The Last Duel submerges its true story – the rape of a woman in 14th-century France – inside a story about the man who did it and her husband, his friend.
We get the duel, the joust, up front, so we know from the outset where this adaptation of true story is going, and then director Ridley Scott and writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (their first collaboration since Good Will Hunting) and Nicole Holofcener (presumably brought in to de-problematise the very problematical screenplay) wheel us back in time to what brought us to this point.
We’re introduced to all the parties involved – Sir Jean Carrouges (Matt Damon), in spite of his epicene name a chunky nightclub bouncer of a knight, a hothead, uncouth; Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), a lowly squire rather than a knight but more naturally noble, a thinker, educated… and hot (say all the ladies of the court); Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite, a smart, educated woman more or less sold into marriage with Carrouges by her impecunious father.
In Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, the story of a woman being raped is told and retold by four witnesses to the deed, each of them putting their own spin on events. Here, we get three versions of the same facts, from the point of view of Jean Carrouges, from Jacques le Gris and, finally, from Marguerite, each chapter fronted by a “The truth according to… “ heading, with the words “the truth” remaining slightly longer on screen in the case of Margeurite, as if to suggest…
But never mind the tilt at Rashomon, this is essentially a “bro’s before ho’s” tale of two men wrangling over a bit of property, one higher in social status than his more noble-looking friend. It’s only as we enter the final straight and the heavily pregnant Marguerite is at a trial on a charge that she went along with the disputed rape that all the elements line up and some of the understated themes start to make sense. If a woman does not have “the little death” (ie orgasm) she cannot conceive, we’re told. “A rape cannot cause a pregnancy,” says one man of the cloth eager to convict. So the fact that Marguerite is here and obviously pregnant means she enjoyed the sex, hence no rape.
It’s the standard defence to rape (she acquiesced) and the standard problem in almost every rape trial – whose word do you accept? The film comes alive here, forcing other questions to the surface. Like why have Ridley Scott and his vast technical team lavished so much time on scenes of bloody battle, brilliantly executed though they are, since this is much more a Game of Thrones-style tale of intrigue and courtly goings-on?
It is lavishly appointed in every way – lots of extras, fabulous settings in Norman castles, a cast of heavyweights (like Harriet Walter, as Jean’s severe mother, or Ben Affleck as the feckless and libidinous liege lord of both Carrouges and le Gris), gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of Scott regular Dariusz Wolski (who makes visual references to the candlelit interiors or Scott’s first film, The Duellists). There is nothing wrong with this film as a work of visual drama. It’s as a story that it falls apart. Who’s it really about?
Jodie Comer comes into her own in the final stretch, first as a woman defending her honour, then as the wife explaining to her slow-on-the-uptake husband that if he fails at the duel he is so insisting on and is killed by le Gris, then that will be seen as a sign from God that she was lying, and she’ll be burnt at the stake. A “yeh, thanks for that” speech (probably written by Holofcener) Comer does very well.
Other little joys include Alex Lawther as the King Charles VI, the boy king with a smirk permanently on his lips, the ruling elite neatly caricatured in a performance that takes the film in a direction it is always straining towards – Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
That’s the funny thing about Ridley Scott – his track record with historical epics is not great. For every banger like Gladiator, there’s a 1492: Conquest of Paradise, an Exodus: Gods and Kings, a Robin Hood or a Kingdom of Heaven, all flappy and windy as hell.
He now has Gladiator 2 in the works. Let’s hope for great things.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022