Ridley Scott is one of our best living directors… half of the time, at least. For every Alien, there’s a Prometheus. For every Black Hawk Down, there’s a Hannibal. For every Gladiator, there’s a Robin Hood or Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott’s period pieces, in particular, tend to be hit and miss. The Last Duel is one of his best, building to Scott’s most thrilling showdown since Maximus faced off against Commodus. The real fight, however, is one woman’s struggle to be heard in a society that could care less about her tragedy.
It’s been almost twenty-five years since Ben Affleck and Matt Damon scribed their Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting. The two Boston boys reteam for this adaptation of Eric Jager’s non-fiction novel, co-writing the script with Nicole Holofcener. Set against a colorless 1386 backdrop, the film presents its tale of blood and rape from three perspectives. Damon plays Jean de Carrouges, a knight with a strong sense of pride. Carrouges is best friends with squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who seems charming on the surface. No matter how you look at the story, though, Le Gris is a despicable excuse for a human being.
The Last Duel belongs to Jodie Comer as Marguerite de Carrouges, who claims that Le Gris raped her. Damon does an effective job at portraying two sides of Carrouges. From Carrouges’ perspective, he’s a loving husband who wishes to defend his wife’s honor. From Marguerite’s perspective, her husband only cares about his fragile ego. Challenging Le Gris to a trial by combat, Carrouges is willing to die to get revenge and restore his name. Marguerite’s life will also be on the line if Carrouges loses. Even with this revelation, Marguerite would rather die screaming the truth than go to the grave silent.
By the third act, it’s made clear which of the three main characters is telling the truth. This removes some of the suspense and at over 150 minutes, a few repetitive moments could’ve been trimmed down. There’s an awkward kissing scene that’s shown from three perspectives, but once was more than enough. This narrative structure ultimately works, though, especially once we get to Marguerite’s side of the story. The problem with a lot of movies about sexual assault is that the victim sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. It initially appears The Last Duel may make this mistake as well, but the final act is Comer’s show. While the first two chapters prepare us for something unspeakable, we don’t get the complete picture until we see things through Marguerite’s eyes. As shocking as the act itself is, it’s the indifference from others that’s hauntingly relevant.
Although it’s set in medieval times, the parallels to the #MeToo movement couldn’t be more apparent. Ben Affleck’s Count Pierre d’Alençon has echoes of a Hollywood producer who’s been getting away with couch interviews for years. Occasionally, the dialogue strays a tad too modern, but Comer’s performance can speak to any generation. Comer’s most powerful moment comes towards the end following the titular duel. Without giving away the outcome, Comer’s expression as she looks across the crowd sums up why so many victims of sexual assault have gone unheard for centuries. Even when one does speak up, the public misses the point. A victory can feel more like a loss, prolonging a war that’s still being fought.