Ridley Scott returns to safe territory – angry men with swords – in The Last Duel: a medieval story of rape, revenge, and a society where women are treated as property and superstition reigns over justice. Fans of the director’s work will appreciate its atmosphere and intensity. Those unimpressed by Scott – while I must admit to not understanding their disdain at all – are unlikely to suddenly be converted by this new work. For my own part I consider Scott one of the genuine filmmaking greats, and The Last Duel one of my favourite films of 2021. It goes without saying, but if depictions and discussions of sexual assault are something you choose to avoid you can very safely avoid this film.
There have been three times that I have read a non-fiction book and immediately thought ‘This needs to become a movie.’ One was The Last Victim, by the late Jason Moss, which was sadly adapted into the odious Dear Mr Gacy (2010). The second was Peter Stevens’ The Voyage of the Catalpa (2002), whose subject matter has been the inspiration for multiple failed film projects in Australia – but I live in hope. The third was The Last Duel (2004) by Eric Jager.
The events on which Jager’s book is based are stunningly dramatic. The French knight Jean de Carrouges returns home from war to find his wife Marguerite accusing courtier – and Jean’s one-time friend – Jacques le Gris of home invasion and rape. Unable to pursue Gris through the standard courts, Carrouges instead appeals to the king to allow a trial by combat. The two men shall fight to the death, with the winner declared just by divine intervention. It marks the last time such a trial by combat was undertaken in France, hence the title.
For a 21st century viewer, the circumstance and legal process involved is horrifying. Women in 14th century France lack the rights that men do; to such an extent that Marguerite’s alleged rape is not considered a crime against her but a literal property crime against her husband. At the same time, as is still largely the case today, proving that the crime occurred is largely a matter of personal testimony and hearsay about personal culpability. Did Gris actually assault Marguerite, or was it an extramarital affair that she now regrets? Did she lead him on with flirting and insinuations? Worst of all the assault has resulted in Marguerite’s pregnancy – something that never happened in her five years of marriage to Carrouges – and the primitive medical wisdom of the time is that being raped cannot make women pregnant.
This could easily have proved an intractable problem for a film adaptation. One cannot rewrite this medieval mindset, and the court and church documents upon which Jager’s book is based naturally favour the testimonies and views of the men involved at the near-total expense of the woman. In a feat that both retains the medieval point of view and gives voice to Marguerite, the narrative is split – Rashomon-style – to replay key events from three different points of view. First Carrouges, then Gris, and finally Marguerite. Not only does this order make sense dramatically, it also ultimately favours Marguerite’s narrative above all others. The screenplay is by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck – who both also star in the film – and writer/director Nicole Holofcener. It was a smart move to ensure a woman contributed to the screenplay: Marguerite’s section of the film rings with truth and delivers an unexpected amount of personal power to a woman who is legally powerless.
The film is wonderfully cast, with Damon (as Carrouges) and Affleck (as local Count Pierre d’Alençon) joined by Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Harriet Walter, and Martin Csokas. Both Damon and Affleck play roles that seem sharply against type, with Damon playing Carrouges as a foolish, brutal thug, and Affleck playing Pierre as a fey and corrupt decadent. Adam Driver once again proves himself one of contemporary cinemas best performers, with a portrayal of Jacques de Gris that is initially sympathetic before slowly turning loathsome. Jodie Comer is a stand-out, giving Marguerite a strong sense of strength and dignity.
Being a Ridley Scott film, The Last Duel is understandably a handsomely-staged production. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography captures the story with a sort of bleak beauty. Harry Gregson-Williams contributes an evocative orchestral score that does not feel slavishly tied down to a traditional sound. As a historical drama it is laudably accurate in plot, costuming, and production design.
When future audiences look back at Ridley Scott’s films, I think two main elements will most resonate. Firstly, his one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner that defined science fiction cinema for a generation. Secondly, just how superbly he handled historical action and drama. That aspect to his filmmaking constantly feels underrated, and The Last Duel adds yet another example to a list that already includes The Duellists, 1492, and Kingdom of Heaven. It may have under-performed in cinemas – a two-and-a-half hour medieval rape drama is a tough sell at the tail end of a global pandemic – but I have no doubt that time will be kind to The Last Duel. It is a superb work.