Review: ‘The Last Duel’ (me too-ish)

The truth according to Ridley Scott.

In 14th century France during the 100 Years War, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) makes his way as an illiterate squire fighting for King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), promised the captainship of the garrison currently held by his father; his name carries weight and history. His friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is learned and liked by his direct superior, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), but in times of battle, he trusts Jean’s sword to be true. A rift forms between the two men over the dowry of Marguerite (Jodie Comer), whom Jean accepts both for coin and the promise of an heir, but Jacques is gifted not only Marguerite’s land by Pierre but additionally Jean’s assumed captainship as well. Following another military campaign, Jean returns home to hear Marguerite’s claim that, in his absence, Jacques deceived his way into their home and raped her. With no witnesses to confirm the accusation and honor on the line, Jean seeks a duel with Jacques to let God settle the matter… but the devil is in the details, and everyone has a different recollection leading up to this dire event.

At a two-and-half hour runtime, director Ridley Scott presents three separate chapters detailing identical events leading up to an unresolved duel: the truth according to Jean, Jacques, and finally Marguerite. The trailers suggests Marguerite is a central historical figure who will “defy a nation” by refusing to sit-still/look-pretty, resulting in a duel to the death between two former friends. Good Will Hunting writing collaborators Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote the screenplay based upon the 2004 book “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” by American author Eric Jager, a volume praised for its research and insight into actual medieval times about the last gasps of the feudal system. Is there an actual disconnect between the original intent of the book and the skew of the screenplay, or is something else going on here entirely?

Every moment of Marguerite speaking her mind is literally in the trailers, yet the rest of the film treats her like the same afterthought her time period shackles her to. It isn’t until the last chapter of three viewers can confirm what is plainly obvious: Marguerite is powerless. Being literate, well-read, or intelligent doesn’t matter; she’s not a man, and even other women speak down to her for acting out. Depending on the duel’s outcome — which she can only watch in abject terror — Marguerite’s life will either go back to exactly how it was, or viewers will have to endure the “penalties when a woman lies.” It feels manipulated, the implication a stand is being made and someone might be moved by it, but that’s neither what the film is about nor how it ends. It’s a plot imposed upon a documentary to imply more than is on the page, a trap like the one Marguerite creates for herself to wait and watch as others decide her fate — right along with the audience.

It isn’t an accident, either, showing every important man as incompetent, whether they’re too busy whoring to balance their books or too forgetful to collect rents — the only exception being a rapist. Anyone supposing this wasn’t deliberate need only watch the chapter header where “the truth” lingers longer than the previous chapters, suggesting Marguerite’s is the most accurate. This is akin to the all the parents being idiots in children’s films or all the Stormtroopers who keep missing the Rebels. Only Queen Isabeau (Serena Kennedy) looks noticeably uncomfortable with Marguerite’s plight — perhaps imagining herself in a similar dilemma — similarly ignored by King Charles VI, squirming with delight to declare a victor in the duel.

Other than Count Pierre’s portrayal being eerily similar to a “View Askew” Ben Affleck character — it kind of works, actually — the acting is solid, the combat brutal, and the production as good as money can buy. If Marguerite were introduced sooner or if any of the men were shown as redeemable, the purity of one woman suffering might have had impact; as it is, she is presented as a perfect angel among despicable devils and beyond reproach. Of course, if the only reason someone’s watching is to see who wins, they’ve probably missed what little point there was to be made. Maybe House of Gucci will be better, hmm?

The Last Duel is rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, language, and something rotten in the state of Normandy.

Two skull recommendation out of four

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