You have to hand it to Ridley Scott. At an age when most people are seeking nothing more than a mug of Horlicks and a pair of comfy slippers, he’s still creating big, powerful movies at a rate that would make most younger directors quail. Lurking just over the cinematic horizon is The House of Gucci, but meanwhile there’s The Last Duel, a powerful slice of true history, that unfolds its controversial story over a leisurely two hours and thirty-two minutes. Set in France in the fourteenth century, it relates the story of the last official duel ever fought there.
After years of military service in various wars under the sponsorship of Count Pierre d’ Alençon (Ben Affleck), Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is struggling to maintain his house and lands, after the death of his wife. So he marries Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a disgraced but prosperous landowner. As part of the dowry, Jean is promised an area of land he’s long coveted, so he’s understandably miffed when Pierre takes control of it and gifts it to his squire, Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), a former friend of Jean’s.
A powerful rivalry develops between the two men – a rivalry that finally culminates in Jacques visiting Jean’s castle in his absence and raping Marguerite. Jacques denies the allegation – in his self-aggrandising mind, Marguerite was attracted to him and therefore there was no rape. She meanwhile insists on speaking out against her assailant in an age when women in such situations were advised to keep quiet about such matters for their own safety.
Jean demands that Jacques meets him in mortal combat, and that God should decide who is telling the truth – but the consequences of him losing the fight are severe to say the very least. Marguerite will be burned alive if God judges her to be a liar.
The message here is inescapable. In a world where toxic masculinity holds sway, a woman’s word is worth nothing. She is expected to obey her husband in all matters and keep her mouth firmly shut, just as Jean’s mother, Nicole (Harriet Walter), had to when she was younger. It’s sad to observe that, many centuries later, this situation hasn’t improved as much as it should have done. Only recently, certain commentators in America have insisted on holding to the medieval belief that a woman cannot become pregnant through rape. It beggars belief but it’s still out there.
The Last Duel is told, Rashomon style, in three separate chapters, each one seen from the point of view of one of the leading characters. Often we see the same scene replayed with sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring differences. It’s not until we reach the final stretch that we witness Marguerite’s account of what actually happened to her and there’s no doubt in our minds that hers is the one we ought to believe. The script by Damon, Afflick and Nicole Holofcener, based on the novel by Eric Jager, is perfectly judged and a quick perusal of the actual events reveals that the writers have been assiduously faithful to what happened. Both Damon and Driver excel as men driven by their own overbearing sense of privilege, while Comer dazzles in every frame, clearly a woman on the verge of becoming a major star of the big screen. Little wonder that Scott has lined her up to play Josephine in his upcoming Napoleon biopic.
This is serious, grown-up filmmaking of a kind that’s sadly all too rare in a cinema dominated by cartoonish fantasy films. Scott has always excelled in recreating history on an epic scale and The Last Duel doesn’t disappoint. The big screen virtually explodes with a whole series of magnificent set pieces. Here is a medieval world that convinces down to the final detail, one that looks and feels thoroughly believable. And is there any other director who can depict medieval warfare in such brutal, unflinching detail? For once, the film’s 18 certificate feels entirely appropriate. I find myself gasping at just about every sword, axe and hammer blow.
The Last Duel won’t be for everyone, but for me it provides a visual feast with a compelling and fascinating story – and reinforces my belief that Ridley Scott is one of cinema’s most enduring and most versatile talents.