In The Last Duel, Ridley Scott directs a historical drama based on a 2014 book, retelling events that have passed into French cultural legend regarding the last “trial by combat” in medieval France, 1386.
The screenplay is written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener – Enough Said (2013), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) – and has been received as a medieval #MeToo drama.
The story features the knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Jean’s wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). Ben Affleck plays Pierre d’Alençon — a lavish and squirrelly lord with local authority over the three main characters.
Petty squabbles over money and property between Jean and Jacques (encouraged by Pierre’s financial needs) escalate dramatically when Marguerite confides in her husband that Jacques entered their home while she was alone one day and raped her.
Jean makes a formal request for a seldom-held duel, or “trial by combat,” to pursue vengeance – the outcome of which is considered determined by God, and taken as a final verdict on the truth of the charges. If Jean loses the contest, his wife Jacques will be declared guilty of wrongfully accusing Jacques and burnt at the stake.
A retelling of events leading up to the duel follows, exploring the predictably biased and irrational legal system of medieval France (to which parallels with legal systems of today are drawn).
The crime of rape is ultimately defined as another, graver form of property damage against the husband. That appears to be how Marguerite’s husband, Jean, sees it too.
One of the things the narrative questions is love, asking whether underneath romantic protestations are simply self-interested thoughts of possession or lust.
The story is structured Rashomon style, retelling events from the perspective of each of the three main characters — though the differences between each perspective are much subtler than Kurosawa’s 1950 genre masterpiece.
Visually and technically the film is proficient, and the presence of a director as experienced as Scott comes across. The colour grading leans too heavily into murky greens and browns for my eyes, and the presentation and set design feels a bit staid and clinical, but the look fits the genre, and creates a cold feeling that fits the narrative aims. It is in line with the slick, big budget cinema Scott is known for.
It has been a while since I watched The Duellists (1977), one of Scott’s earliest films, but I remember it having more visual grit and roughness. If anything, The Last Duel is over-polished and too meticulous to feel real. It has a touch of visual contrivance, but many will appreciate the photography from Dariusz Wolski – The Martian (2015), Prometheus (2012) – as a refined and appropriate look, that chimes with aspects of the narrative.
The story depicts a bleak world dominated by men and focused on matters of property and violence. It is hostile to and distrustful of women — ultimately offering neither the pursuit of happiness or a space under the umbrella of “justice for all.”
Jacques, Jean, and Pierre take up much of the screen time. They are all, in different ways and to varying extents, thoroughly dislikable characters, so it’s a struggle to find someone to enjoy spending time with on screen.
Jacques is squirmy and two-faced, hides behind charm and literacy, and weaponises flattery and romance. Adam Driver conveys these traits with conviction, and gives a great performance. Jean is dry as a Weetabix between two rice crackers, and violently possessive. He sees his wife along the same lines he sees his horses — an asset to mate and produce offspring. Pierre is without scruples, vain to an extreme, womanises as a pastime, flaunts wealth and power, and practises cronyism.
These are the three characters who command the lion’s share of screen time.
That leaves Marguerite, whose position is firmly sympathetic (and whose performance by Jodie Comer is excellent), but whose expression is restrained. She has a significant amount of screen time, but plays a subservient role within the medieval world depicted. Her expression is limited within this world, and that’s a part of what the story is saying, so the script paints itself into a corner here. There are women around her in the script, but their roles are not supportive, so they don’t serve to expand the female voice.
The story is largely told through the words and actions of male characters. It builds a world shown to be bleak for women, where pursuing justice is fraught with peril, and that ultimately might consign them to lesser forms of misery as its reward.
Marguerite has some moments of key dialogue that are effective in a concise way — enough to make statements with force. It might be a “less is more” approach, to put the tenets of her view and experience across while showing her voice to be marginalised, with few opportunities to speak.
And the film might use a narrative with little room for female expression with the intention to position the (male) viewer in the experience of the female, showing how the world looks from the other side of the coin.
This has logic, but it left me unconvinced stories concerned with the female experience are best told by replicating their oppression in the narrative, with male-dominated casts and female characters with limited opportunities to speak up. It makes for a film that feels unbalanced and disjointed from its intentions.
Dramatically, there are character arcs and twists that are effective. The duel the story builds up to is memorable, bloody, and well executed. Its outcome could go either way to make its point.
This is Ridley Scott at his most experienced and technically proficient. It is also a flawed and unbalanced narrative, which means it doesn’t compare favourably to his best work. And as a #MeToo drama, I have doubts this will stand the test of time.