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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Last Duel’: the present reflected in the past

Dan Webster

Above: Adam Driver and Matt Damon star in Ridley Scott's "The Last Duel." (Photo/Walt Disney Studios)

Movie review: "The Last Duel," directed by Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck. Streaming on HBO Max.

In his long and varied career, Ridley Scott has directed a number of films set in the distant past. Think of “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and even his version of “Robin Hood.” Yet in all of these, either in theme, tone or casting, he’s always included a sense of the present day.

His latest film is “The Last Duel,” and it features two resolutely 21st-century guys, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Besides starring in the film, Damon and Affleck both produced and, along with Nicole Holofcener, wrote the film’s screenplay. And, surprise-surprise, they – along with Adam Driver, another ultra-contemporary star – acquit themselves well. Or at least well enough.

The “based on real events” story that they, Holofcener and Scott tell dates back to Dec. 29, 1386, when two Frenchmen – the knight Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon) and the squire Jacques Le Gris (played by Driver) – dueled over Carrouges’s accusation that Le Gris had raped his wife, Marguerite (played by Jodie Comer, she of the BBC America series “Killing Eve”).

While based on a nonfiction account of the case, “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France” – written by Eric Jager – the screenplay splits the story into three distinct chapters. This allows Scott to tell the story in a way that reflects the contrasting perspectives of the three main characters – Carrouges, Le Gris and Madame Carrouges.

The reason for this both reflects a contemporary sensibility and is what sets the film apart from your typical sword-and-sandal epic. French historians and legal experts are still debating the truth of what occurred those six-plus centuries ago. Did Le Gris actually rape Madame Carrouges? Or was she lying? By taking the Akira Kurosawa route – referring to the Japanese master’s 1950 drama “Rashomon” that explores a crime from varying, and conflicting, points of view – the film lets the viewing audience decide.

“The Last Duel” begins some 16 years earlier, with Carrouges, Le Gris and others embarking on one of the many wars of that period – this one against the English. When the two return home, Carrouges finds himself strapped for funds while Le Gris – having become a favorite of the local baron, Count Pierre d’Alençon (played by Affleck) – is sent to collect debts owed to the Count.

Le Gris agrees to see what he can do on Carrouges’ account, for which his old battle companion is grateful. But their friendship becomes strained when, after bargaining for a piece of land as part of his soon-to-be-wife’s dowry, Carrouges learns that the Count has already awarded the property to Le Gris.

The crux of their devolving relationship, though, concerns the attack on Madame Carrouges, which Le Gris adamantly denies – and which, due to the laws of the time, results in the climactic duel to the death. And this is where “The Last Duel” is at its best – especially during the middle chapter, which offers Le Gris’ perspective.

All three chapters relate the same story, with the views being mostly complimentary to the character doing the telling. Carrouges, for example, claims to have saved Le Gris’ life, while Le Gris claims the opposite occurred. Meanwhile, Madame Carrouges – whose chapter was written by Holofcener – has the most contemporary feel, being – as Damon admitted to the New York Times “kind of an original screenplay … because that world of women had to be almost invented and imagined out of whole cloth.”

Her story, by the way, deserves to be preceded by what has become a common admonition in schools and before certain TV programs: a trigger warning. The rape scene is that graphic and violent.

Did the women of the time, virtually powerless under the law, have the kind of backbone exhibited by Comer’s character? Hard to say. Yet for dramatic purposes, it works. And it does so because it so contrasts Le Gris’ telling, which portrays him as blind to anything other than his own desires, his own view of what rights as a nobleman he has over any woman he might want.

Considering the cases from our own time involving rich men taking advantage of young women, it’s clear that some things haven’t changed – though now the justice being served has at least a chance of coming through the courts instead of trial by combat.

An edited version of this review was previously broadcast on Spokane Public Radio.

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