At first glance, The Last Duel has all the hallmarks of a Ridley Scott medieval classic: bleak historical setting, big set-piece battles, a rousing speech or two. But delve a little deeper into this rape-revenge parable starring Jodie Comer, and you’ll find a movie that’s very different to Robin Hood or Kingdom Of Heaven.
Set in 14th century feudal France, Scott’s latest details the first meeting, courtship and subsequent marriage of Marguerite and Jean de Carrouges. Despite money troubles, they live happily on Jean’s sizeable estate, until one day he returns from an important expedition to find his wife has been raped by a rival knight. The accused (Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris) denies any wrongdoing. So Jean gallantly (or so it would seem) risks both his reputation and life in order to win justice for his beloved in a climactic fight-to-the-death.
Same old Scott, right? Well, not really. Following this lengthy set-up, The Last Duel becomes something else entirely. After telling the story from Jean’s point of view – in which, naturally, he comes across as a kind husband and heroic warrior – the film zips backwards in time and repeats itself. Now, we see things through the eyes of Jacques (including a rape scene that is clearly still a rape, regardless of what Jacques thinks), before finally Marguerite gets her say. Luckily, Scott just about makes it clear which account is the truth with some clever inter-titles that flash up on screen.
Still, the three-part structure feels like an odd choice. It’s supposed to demonstrate the ignorance and male privilege of its main characters, but instead silences the film’s most important voice, Marguerite, for two-thirds of the action. Even in a modern-day ‘he-said-she-said’ situation, the victim would be afforded 50-50 in a trial by social media. Framing everything around the titular, all-male dust-up further changes this film about a woman into one about men. Perhaps this wouldn’t have happened had there been fewer blokes jousting for input (Scott directs, while Damon and Ben Affleck co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Holofcener). Surely, in a post-#MeToo movie about believing women, the male gaze is the last thing we need?
Fortunately, the whole thing is saved (unsurprisingly) by a woman. Comer’s performance as the traumatised Marguerite is honest and moving, her best yet. In Killing Eve she adds heft to psycho-killer Villanelle, who could in lesser hands veer towards caricature. Her Marguerite is similarly complex, flicking from shock and fear to anger in a few seconds. Elsewhere, Affleck puts in a pleasingly silly turn as Pierre d’Alençon – a ruling count with a taste for wine and womanising. There aren’t many jokes in The Last Duel – and Affleck nails them all.
Without the strong cast – Damon and Driver are also on top form – Scott’s first film in four years wouldn’t work at all. As it is, there’s something about Marguerite’s struggle that makes it undeniably gripping – possibly even more-so than its makers other historical classics. It’s certainly more important.
- Director: Ridley Scott
- Starring: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver
- Release date: October 15 (in cinemas)