Harriet Walter

The Last Duel

16/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Herself

23/09/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The multi-talented Clare Dunne co-wrote this script, has a sole credit for ‘story,’ and also plays the titular ‘Herself.’ It seems fitting that this film should be a kind-of-but-not-at-all-really one-woman project, just like the house that her character, Sandra, wants to build.

Sandra’s husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Henderson), is a violent man. Sandra’s been saving up so that she can leave him, but he finds her secret money-stash and decides to punish her. She’s clearly been anticipating the attack, and gives her oldest daughter, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara), the signal they’ve arranged. Emma races off to the nearest shop and shows them Sandra’s hand-written message. ‘Help. Phone the Garda. My life is in danger.’ It’s a heartbreaking moment; no one could fail to be moved by Emma’s trusting, fearful little face, imploring the shopkeeper to understand.

It works: Sandra doesn’t die. And she escapes from the relationship. But her new situation just isn’t tenable: she relies on painkillers and a wrist support to cope with the nerve damage Gary inflicted on her arm, and she’s living in a hotel room next to Dublin Airport, miles away from her daughters’ school and friends. There are no cooking facilities, and the only place for the kids to play is the multi-storey car park. Sandra has two cleaning jobs – in a bar and in a private home – and she struggles to get to them on time. Something, somewhere, has to change.

And Sandra has to make the change. Herself.

This is a deceptively gentle film, with a searing polemic at its heart. There’s Gary, wheedling for another chance. There’s the courts – for all the fall-out: the custody arrangements, the maintenance payments. And there’s the council and their housing list. When Sandra approaches them with an eminently sensible plan (“You have all this land. Lend me the money to build a house on it and I’ll pay you rent. It’ll work out cheaper than putting me up in a hotel”), it’s obvious the answer is going to be no. The person behind the desk doesn’t have the power to green-light such a project and, even if she did, the bureaucracy involved would be mind-boggling. Anyway, if places were being allocated, Sandra probably wouldn’t qualify. Not while there’s a housing shortage, and plenty of people worse off than her.

But Herself, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is also a fairy tale, a fantasy about what might happen, if only… If only rich people shared the land they have; if only communities worked together to help those in need.

Enter, stage right: the fairy godmother – disguised here as grumpy doctor, Peggy (the inimitable Harriet Walter). Sandra’s is Peggy’s cleaner; she’s been using the doctor’s laptop to sneak a peek at YouTube instruction videos on how to build her own house, and Peggy realises she can help. She has a big garden, standing empty, with more than enough space. And she’ll also lend Sandra the money she needs.

It’s enough to get the ball rolling. Retired builder, Aido (Conleth Hill), is reluctant at first, but is swayed by his son, Francis (Daniel Ryan)’s desire to assist. He’s soon joined by a host of volunteers, all eager to make a difference. There’s a lovely lesson here: by helping Sandra, they help themselves, each acquiring a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

This is a multi-layered tale, and there are surprises here that I won’t spoil. Suffice to say, it’s unpredictable, and avoids clichés, both of character and story arc. If occasionally it veers close to mawkishness, it always cuts away in time, which is testament to Dunne and co-writer Malcolm Campbell’s skilful writing.

The two child actors (O’Hara and Molly McCann) are both terrific – natural and sweet and utterly believable – and the supporting cast is uniformly strong. But this is Dunne’s film in every way. She owns it. Herself.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Mindhorn

05/05/17

Here’s a bit of an oddity – a movie shot on the Isle of Man, that isn’t pretending to be Scotland or Ireland or Monte Carlo, but actually is, of all things, the Isle of Man. That’s because the location was the regular haunt of fictional 80s cop, Mindhorn (think a cross between Bergerac and the Six Million Dollar Man and you’re pretty much there). But time has moved on and actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Baratt) has lost his hair, developed a beergut and is finding it increasingly difficult to land decent acting work, reduced now to advertising corsets and support stockings. This is doubly annoying considering his old co-star, Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan) has managed to string out his spin-off series, Windjammer for eight successful seasons and still lives on the island in unabashed luxury.

Thorncroft thinks he sees an opportunity to revitalise his own career, when a suspected serial killer, who calls himself ‘The Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey) announces to the police that he will talk to only one person – Mindhorn himself. Thorncroft heads back to his old stamping ground and begins to reconnect with people from his past – not least, his regular love interest on the series, Patricia Deville (Essie Davies) who now lives with Thorncroft’s old stunt stand in, Clive (Simon Farnaby). But as the events unfold, the former star is drawn into a bit of amateur sleuthing – and it becomes apparent that things may not be exactly what they seem…

Mindhorn may not be big on belly laughs, but it’s a decent comedy thriller with an appealing central premise and it’s shot through with a genuine sense of pathos. Thorncroft’s desperate need to rekindle his former star power verges on desperation only leads him, inevitably into deeper humiliation. The film boasts a starry cast, including Andrea Riseborough, Simon Callow, Harriet Walter and (in an uncredited cameo) Kenneth Branagh, who enjoys one of the film’s most outrageous scenes. Barrett makes a convincing transition to leading man and Essie Davies is also terrific as Mindhorn’s lost love. It’s clear from the outset that the two of them have some unfinished business.

So yes, enjoyably silly stuff. Make sure you stay till the end of the credits for a showing of Mindhorn’s wonderfully naff power ballad, You Can’t Handcuff the Wind, the dreadful lyrics of which may just be worth the price of admission alone.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney