It’s December 1386. A knight and a squire face off in the last duel sanctioned by the French crown in the latest based-on-a-true-story movie from “Black Hawk Down” director Ridley Scott. The knight has accused the squire of raping his wife and a battle to the death will determine guilt or innocence.
Marine veteran Adam Driver plays squire Jacques Le Gris, Matt Damon plays the knight Jean de Carrouges and Jodie Comer plays Lady Marguerite, whose rape led to the duel. Ben Affleck is Pierre D'Alencon, the count to whom both men report in their service to the king of France.
Scott is also the director who made “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Robin Hood” (the Russell Crowe one) and “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” He knows how to stage ancient combat and swordplay. Hell, his first-ever feature was “The Duellists,” a 1977 movie that deserves a much wider audience. “The Last Duel” is full of outstanding combat scenes that continue Scott’s mastery of the genre.
The movie opens as Le Gris and de Carrouges prepare for their duel, and we get to see their first pass on horseback before the movie flashes back to explain how we got to this point. 20th Century Studios has released a video that lets audiences see this opening combat before they head to the theater.
Of course, “The Last Duel” isn’t just about combat. The movie, based on Eric Jager’s 2010 history book, “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal and Trial by Combat,” tells its story three consecutive times, focusing on the perspectives of de Carrouges, Le Gris and Marguerite. The differences are telling.
Damon and Affleck wrote the screenplay in collaboration with accomplished indie filmmaker Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”). It’s the first time the two actors have collaborated on a script since they won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” in 1998.
For all its accomplished battle sequences, the movie is really about how women were treated back in medieval times and how closely some of that treatment is mirrored today. De Carrouges is arrogant and self-absorbed, Le Gris is free-spirited but deeply corrupt, and D’Alencon is decadent and depraved. None of them qualifies as a hero.
There’s no ambiguity about what happens to Marguerite; there’s only a question of how each man sees the crime. As a woman, Marguerite cannot make a charge of rape, but her husband can because the assault is an attack on his property. That’s pretty rough to watch.
When de Carrouges risks his standing to support his wife and pursue justice against Le Gris, there’s a question as to whether he’s concerned more about his wounded pride than what’s been done to his wife. As for Le Gris, he actually convinces himself that he had an affair with his friend’s wife and that her protests were just a way to maintain her dignity as she committed infidelity.
When we finally get Marguerite’s side of the story, we learn that she sees herself as a mature and competent businesswoman who has to cover for her hotheaded husband’s failings. When de Carrouges insists on having trial by combat to resolve the question of guilt, she’s outraged to learn that she’ll be tortured to death if her husband loses the duel.
Driver, as always, brings his trademark hyper enthusiasm to a character who’s definitely not the good guy his manner initially suggests. Damon is outstanding, with a ridiculous mullet that actually works as you learn how stubborn and socially awkward his character actually is.
Affleck’s got a silly blond wig, and he’s hilarious as a corrupt nobleman who wields power on a whim and devotes his life to illicit pleasure. Comer, who’s become a star through her role in “Killing Eve,” is really outstanding as she carves out a presence in a movie about a time when women were an afterthought at best.
The multiple perspectives approach to the movie isn’t seamless, and there’s a clunky approach to dialog. The characters all talk in some imaginary and flowery “olde times” diction, except when they drop in random modern phrases. You could argue that it’s on purpose, since the filmmakers are most definitely trying to draw connections between their story and the modern trials of women who speak out against injustice.
The battle and combat scenes are masterful, and the final duel is brilliantly staged. With what the audience has learned about the circumstances leading up to the showdown, the outcome hardly seems like the triumph it might have been if Scott had shown the entire battle at the beginning of the movie.
Scott is turning 84 this year, so we probably won't get many more movies from him. Driver is starring in his next movie, “House of Gucci,” a crime film about the legendary Italian fashion family. It’s complete and due in theaters for Thanksgiving 2021. “The Last Duel” is a worthy addition to his catalog and offers the best sword combat we’ve seen on screen in years.
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