Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, writing as a pair for the first time since ‘Good Will Hunting’, present basic facts about contemporary gender politics as earth-shattering revelations
Dir: Ridley Scott. Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck. Cert 18, 152 mins
Can you imagine if Matt Damon and Ben Affleck hadn’t enlisted the help of Nicole Holofcener when writing The Last Duel? The result could have been catastrophic, a kind of “Ye Olde Bro’s Guide to Rape Culture”. Luckily, for them – and for us – they did. Directed by Ridley Scott, who returns to similar terrain as his 1977 debut The Duellists, the film takes a three-pronged approach to the story of France’s last recorded trial by combat, which took place in 1386 and was later documented by historian Eric Jager in his 2004 book of the same name. We’re shown first “the truth according to” knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon), the aggrieved party; then Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who stands accused of raping Carrouges’s wife Marguerite; and finally Marguerite (Jodie Comer) herself.
Affleck and Damon, writing as a pair for the first time since Good Will Hunting, are as sharp as ever when it comes to the basics of character and narrative. And The Last Duel is perfectly engrossing as a slice of historical intrigue, a clash of iron wills and iron swords, all muddied on the battlefields of medieval France. But there’s a tendency here for the film to present basic facts about contemporary gender politics as some earth-shattering revelation. Can you believe that women were once treated as property, The Last Duel cries, as Comer’s Marguerite sits on the floor like a child, fussing over a small dog while the men discuss her dowry. Can you believe that so little has changed today, it baulks, as Damon and Affleck employ a somewhat ahistorical use of the word “rape” solely to ensure the modern-day parallels remain undeniable
It’s only during Marguerite’s chapter, when Holofcener’s contributions fully kick in, that The Last Duel reveals its true intentions. Having spent two hours or so in the company of men and their petty jealousies, to see Holofcener and Comer carve out a place, protected but fragile, for Marguerite’s pain to dwell in drastically changes the entire meaning of what’s come before. This isn’t quite the star turn that Comer’s fans might be hoping for, post-Killing Eve, since the work she does here is deliberately tempered and unshowy. But it’s the right choice – what she gifts Margeurite is her humanity. Holofcener’s writing is concerned less with explaining the basics of how misogyny functions, rather more to do with outlining how it continues to be protected by the rigidity of ritual and habit.
The Last Duel doesn’t quite replicate Rashomon’s own clashing, contradictory narratives but argues that even an objective truth can be warped by the beholder’s perspective. There is no doubt, even in Le Gris’s version of events, that Margeurite did not consent to sex. What he contends is that resistance is an expected part of the courtly tradition. And what he excludes from his memory is not his own actions, but the look of terror on his victim’s face. The film, crucially, doesn’t present de Carrouges as the innocent party, either. De Carrouges and Le Gris are close companions up until the very moment one threatens the position of the other – Le Gris comes under the favour of Count d’Alencon (Affleck), who gives him a parcel of land intended for de Carrouges. Why is it that only in his story does Marguerite demand vengeance? Does he fight to defend his wife or his own interests?
These ideas and voices have all been filtered through the steady hand and unpretentious mind of director Ridley Scott, who (quite rightly) sees no real need to veer away from the style of glossy, hyperkinetic historical filmmaking he refined in 2001’s Gladiator. The battle sequences look much as they did in that film’s Germanic, forest-based opener. The soldiers already look cold and dead, but it’s the violence – crimson blood splattering across the screen – that reawakens them for the baying audience. Historical epics are somewhat out of vogue now, too easily replaced by superhumans in Spandex, so it’s admirable simply to see Scott stick to his guns and deliver a film that, despite its subject, still functions as broad entertainment.
The director’s never had much affection for historical accuracy – the rule, as with Gladiator, is that it only needs to convince the most untrained of eyes. But The Last Duel does, in fact, benefit from a little modernity. It’s Driver who’s surprisingly the weakest link, too distracted by the need to hit every consonant on his British accent; while Affleck, with his platinum locks and spiky goatee (widely mocked on the internet, yes, but not all that ahistorical), delivers the morally corrupt noble with so many f-bombs and pampered swagger that he walks away with the entire film like it’s a gilded crown perched on his head. Historical epics could always do with a little more of that attitude.