Matt Damon works a minor miracle in director Ridley Scott’s gripping medieval epic The Last Duel (★★★★☆), turning a pissy, perpetually aggrieved man of privilege into a largely sympathetic protagonist. His 14th-century Norman knight Jean de Carrouges nurses a mile-long, ever-accumulating list of grievances — over land, property, and position — that he stays ready to argue, fight, or sue over at the bat of an eye.
A celebrated squire-turned-knight to France’s King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), de Carrouges may be respected for his valor in battle and fruitful military campaigns on behalf of the crown, but, rude and litigious even with friends, the guy is simply no fun.
That’s according to the king’s cousin and vassal in Normandy, Count Pierre d’Alençon, played with mirthful hubris by Damon’s buddy Ben Affleck. Spraying f-bombs and sporting bleached-blonde, ’90s boy-band hair, Affleck’s Pierre feels beamed in from an episode of Entourage, but his contemporary edge serves the film well. Pierre is a playboy, more inclined towards pleasure than battle, and too accustomed to getting whatever he wants to feel much aggrieved about anything — except for the constant complaining from de Carrouges.
The Count and de Carrouges make for proper foils in a bloody swords-and-horses saga that shrewdly marries solid, old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling with a modern, #MeToo sensibility. For de Carrouges believes his wife Marguerite (Killing Eve star Jodie Comer) when she accuses his frenemy and fellow squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping her.
The film, scripted by Oscar winners Affleck and Damon, and Oscar-nominated writer-director Nicole Holofcener, extends to Marguerite a grace and fairness in relaying her side of the story that most women of her time were not necessarily afforded.
Based on Eric Jager’s eponymous 2004 book, The Last Duel offers three distinct perspectives — Marguerite’s, her husband’s, and that of the accused rapist — on the real-life events that prompted the last officially adjudicated trial by combat in France.
As is so often the case, it’s the victimized woman whose actions these powerful men seem most ready to dispute. Marguerite’s every glance, step, and moan bear significance that varies depending on which point of view we’re watching. In the eyes of Le Gris, played by Driver with ripe physicality, she is both the spider and the fly. Her husband regards her, with loving admiration and fierce possessiveness, as his beautiful prize.
In her own mind, Marguerite is willful yet loyal, innocent but not easily fooled, and in every chapter, Comer carries off the shifting perceptions of Marguerite’s conduct and character with engaging subtlety. She invests this obedient wife with wits and backbone, as Damon reveals de Carrouges to be both a man of his time, and believably sensitive to a woman’s lot in life in 1380’s France.
Of course, that hint of self-awareness doesn’t prevent macho de Carrouges from treating his wife like property. Similarly, Ridley Scott doesn’t allow smarts and sensitivity to rein in the brutal, sword-swinging aggression that drives these men and their feudal politics. In fact, the attention to emotional detail elevates the action, which is shot and recorded to lend maximum impact to every concussive blow and gruesome impalement.
The pounding of horses on the march and screams of vanquished combatants break powerfully over Harry Gregson-Williams’ drum-heavy score, while the production design by frequent Scott collaborator Arthur Max (The Martian) deftly blends locations in France and Ireland with CGI to depict medieval Normandy and Paris.
In the near distance, the towers of Notre Dame rise majestically over the bustling capital, a profound visual reminder that the powers that were, in their ceaseless quest to control women’s bodies, still cast long shadows over the fortunes of victors and victims alike.
The Last Duel is playing only in theaters. Visit www.fandango.com.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!