Men hacking at each other with swords in front of a baying crowd and a capricious ruler in a Ridley Scott period movie. Sounds familiar, right? And sure enough there are moments in The Last Duel that do call Gladiator to mind – especially in the crunching battle scenes that decorate the first half of the film in interesting shades of blood and gristle.
But this bleak, wintry retelling of a real historical episode in fourteenth-century Normandy is nothing like as satisfying as that Ancient Rome epic.
At the heart of its storm of vain, egotistical and abusive men is Jodie Comer’s smart, courageous noblewoman, Lady Marguerite de Carrouges, whose rape at the hands of scheming Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver) leads her husband, lunkish warrior Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), to challenge him to France’s last officially sanctioned duel.
Adapted loosely from Eric Jager’s ‘The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France’, it opens with the first exchanges of the duel – a little chainmailed ankle meant to tantalise an audience about to be plunged back in time to investigate its thorny causes.
Intriguingly, The Last Duel frames its story in three chapters and through the prism of the three characters’ recollection. This Rashomon-splaining yields intriguing variants in narrative viewpoints but few surprises. There are tiny divergences to look out for: in his wife’s memory, Jean grows a beard that is absent from his recollections. Even the cold he brings home from a ruinous campaign in Scotland varies in severity, depending on whose version we’re watching. (Tellingly, even in his own account of events no one seems to like Jean that much.)
All these smaller details lead up to a much bigger one: the rape itself. When you see the assault through the eyes of the perpetrator, it feels all of a part with the orgies he takes part in with his feckless friend and powerful political guardian Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck, boasting a rap-rock goatee that somehow isn’t the most egregious hair in the film).
The parallels between the women trying to elude his clutches in the Count’s chambers and a fully dressed and panic-stricken Marguerite doing the same later clearly are not meant to exonerate LeGris, but neither do they help bring any clarity to the points the film is making around consent. Are these men conditioned to see all women as property and fair game to the point where no never means no to them?
The Last Duel needs to be crystal clear on this point, and it isn’t. Maybe Scott’s goal is to damn LeGris a little less in order to damn the whole rotten patriarchal society that much more. At least the film lands a few blows there.
Rendered in wintry blues and greys by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, it’s a typically impressive feat of world-building from Scott full of imposing castles and lovely swashes of countryside. But it’s a film with a grimace on its face, and what levity Damon and Affleck’s first script together since Good Will Hunting delivers comes mainly via Affleck’s bitchy Count Pierre tormenting the impulsive, angry Jean at every turn. Alex Lawther also has fun as King Charles VI, who presides over the later legal wranglings with eye-rolling archness.
But Nicole Holofocener, an accomplished filmmaker in her own right, has a co-writer credit too, and it’s tempting to think that she spent a chunk of the process trying to bring a little finesse to all these scenes of men litigating their beefs in front of other crowds of other men.
When the rape is finally shown through Marguerite’s eyes, there is no doubt, no shades of grey. It’s a traumatic scene that supercharges the third (and inevitably strongest) chapter with a mute fury. Comer is mesmerising when she’s finally foregrounded and is the most watchable thing on screen even when she isn’t.
The big challenge for The Last Duel is to depict a world in which women are marginalised and disempowered without doing the same thing to its female characters. Maybe it should have ceded more of its cold stone floor to Marguerite.
In US and UK cinemas Oct 15.