“The Last Duel” is a tale of knights in armor. But not of chivalry. Far from it.
Chivalry is nonexistent in the world where the picture is set. It’s the world of 14th-century France, where life is nasty, brutish and bloody; where the skies are gray and brooding; and where chilly castles loom forbiddingly over dismal landscapes mired in mud and coated with snow. Director Ridley Scott, who knows a thing or two about how to mount sweeping historical epics (see “Gladiator”), is in his element here.
Inspired by author Eric Jager’s 2004 book, “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France,” it’s a tale told in three sections. The same events unfold from the perspectives of its three main characters in a manner similar to Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” which clearly inspired friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who co-wrote the script and star in the picture. It’s their first screenplay collaboration since “Good Will Hunting,” which won them the Oscar in 1998. They hired Nicole Holofcener — herself an Oscar nominee for 2018’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” — to collaborate on the script to best present the viewpoint of the main female character played by Jodie Comer.
Comer’s character is the pivot around which the plot turns. She’s Marguerite de Carrouges, wife of the knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon), and the object of desire of Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), de Carrouges’ best friend. Her accusation that Le Gris raped her while her husband was away at war unleashes a cascade of events that culminates in a single-combat duel to the death between the two men.
The opening section presents de Carrouges’ perspective, revealing him to be a rough-hewn warrior who’s fearless, impetuous, egotistical and coldly possessive of his wife. Damon works hard to convey those emotions but somehow only makes de Carrouges seem merely peevish.
When de Carrouges’ wife reveals that Le Gris attacked and raped her, he is disbelieving. He questions whether she somehow led her attacker on. She strenuously denies his suspicions and demands that Le Gris be held to account. In feudal France, where women were regarded as their husbands’ property, the odds are heavily stacked against her receiving justice.
Le Gris is the focus of the second section. Driver, clad always in black, is by turns coolly regarding and insistently impassioned. His character is mostly a devious schemer who parlays a close relationship with a high-ranking member of the court (Affleck, with a blond dye job that renders him almost unrecognizable at first) into the role of the man’s accountant. That allows him to put the squeeze on his old pal de Carrouges, who is drowning in debt.
A quarrel over a rich piece of land, which was supposed to go to de Carrouges as part of his wife’s dowry but winds up in Le Gris’ hands instead, turns the one-time friends into bitter enemies. It’s significant that the land dispute enrages de Carrouges far more than the rape.
In the third section, Comer’s portrayal of Marguerite makes her far more sympathetic than either of the two men. Her performance is textured and deeply persuasive.
Marguerite is levelheaded, running the family estate efficiently and balancing the books in her husband’s absence. Above all, she’s resolute when it seems all of society — including members of the clergy and her vindictive mother-in-law (Harriet Walter), who scolds her for not providing her husband with an heir — believe she is at fault and indeed a temptress for leading her attacker astray.
The deep-rooted sexism of the time puts not only the life of the wife but also her husband at risk. The rules of the duel are such that if her husband loses the fight, it will be seen as a sign she lied, and so she’ll be burned at the stake.
The duel itself is impressively staged. With lances lowered and shields raised, the two heavily armored combatants gallop toward each other, clash, fall to earth and then battle hand-to-hand with sword and ax and dagger. The outcome is in question until the very end, and even then, victory is ambiguous. No conventional happy ending here.