The Last Duel: Yes, it brought Matt Damon to Dublin, but there’s far more to it than that

Review: Ridley Scott’s historical epic gives a man and a woman’s differing accounts of a rape

Adam Driver as Jacques LeGris and Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges in The Last Duel. Photograph: Patrick Redmond for 20th Century Studios

Film Title: The Last Duel

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Nathaniel Parker, Adam Nagiatis, Alex Lawther, Clare Dunne

Genre: History

Running Time: 153 min

Wed, Oct 13, 2021, 09:00

   

It would be a shame if Ridley Scott’s latest epic gained distinction solely for its role in drawing Matt Damon to the corner shops of south Co Dublin. Happily, that is not the case.

Marinated in gore and caked in mud, The Last Duel, largely shot in Ireland, offers welcome evidence that — Scott’s recent career often suggesting otherwise — hope really can win over experience. The film has its longueurs. There are a few awkward compromises.

But this is the most satisfying film the prolific director has given us in a decade and a half.

Set in the later years of the 14th century, The Last Duel details a real-life conflict between two markedly contrasted French noblemen. Damon initially plays Jean de Carrouges as a rough-hewn salt-of-the earth type who cares little for the pretensions of the court. Adam Driver, in the middle sections, makes a more sophisticated, literary minded cove of Jacques Le Gris. 

That “initially” and that “in the middle sections” are there for a reason. The script by Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener details the dispute in three parallel contradictory narratives that call up inevitable comparisons with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

Jodie Comer in The Last Duel. Photograph: Patrick Redmond for 20th Century Studios
Electric Jodie Comer in The Last Duel. Photograph: Patrick Redmond for 20th Century Studios

Following various tensions between the two old friends, Le Gris visits de Carrouges’s house and — this much is never in doubt — has sex with his wife Marguerite (an electric Jodie Comer). She later accuses Le Gris of rape and the story slugs its way towards the duel of the title.

When the film was first mooted, some commentators, perhaps still smarting at ill-judged episodes in Game of Thrones, objected to the very idea of using rape as a plot device (that rules out material from the Book of Genesis to Andrea Dworkin’s fiction and beyond). There are, indeed, some uneasy moments in The Last Duel, but few could dispute that a serious attempt is being made to engage with the patriarchy’s eternal complicity in violence against woman.

The first part, told by de Carrouges, tells us of a simple, wronged man standing up against an elitist establishment. The following chapter, Le Gris’s story, is deliberately less convincing in its efforts to show us a man undone by misunderstanding and a viperish lover.

The picture steps up several gears with the truth according to Marguerite, a vicious closing act, that skewers the two former friends as disingenuous, vain boors whose only real concern is their own pathetic honour.

In Marguerite’s version — unambiguously presented as the reliable one — her husband, who first disbelieves his wife, views the assault as primarily a violation of his property. “Can this man do nothing but evil to me?” he rails. To him? “There is no right. There is only the power of men,” Marguerite’s unsympathetic mother-in-law observes. Ben Affleck’s effective role as an appalling drunken libertine further presses home the case. 

That final version, largely written by Holofcener, takes both cheeky digs and savage swipes at the male characters. In Jean’s story, he is plagued by a savage, possibly life threatening illness. In Marguerite’s, he has the Dark Ages’ version of man flu.

Flattened into a misogynist’s version of a “loyal wife” or “temptress” during the opening chapters, Comer gets to stretch out as an intelligent person flailing against time-forged chains. If the film had been a little more warmly received on its premiere, she would surely be guaranteed an Oscar nomination.

Nothing better illustrates the film’s purpose than the two representations of the rape. The second, though necessarily compromised by the demands of mainstream cinema, leaves us in no doubt as to what is going on. The first, told through Jacques Le Gris’s eyes, is shot in the style of a “ravishment” in cheap historical romance or of a more gruesome “sex scene” from an early James Bond film. “She made the customary protests. She is a lady,” he says. The film suggests that he really might believe his own lies.

There is ultimately a compromise here. The Last Duel argues that men will use women’s suffering as an excuse to exercise their own traumas.

For all the film’s centring of Marguerite we know it must end with a scrap between the two male leads. That violence is gnarly and chaotic. We get our pound of flesh (perhaps a little more). Then a sly coda reiterates the core refrain.

A rare historical epic that is connected to contemporary crises.

Opens on October 15th. Support for victims of sexual violence is available from Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s 24-hour helpline, 1800-778888; Men’s Aid Ireland national confidential helpline, 01-5543811; and An Garda, 999/112.