The Last Duel is extremely different from anything else on the cinematic landscape right now. It's a historical drama dealing not only with the sensitive subject of rape, but also of how poorly rape victims are often treated. Three of the four leads are male. If that seems a little lopsided, rest assured that it's only because so much of the film deals with the tendency of some men to make rape about them. The fourth character, a woman, is the lynchpin, as she deals with the refusal of those men to truly see or care about what actually happened to her.
Based on a true story, the film takes place in France during the late 1300s. Matt Damon plays Jean de Carrouges, a knight in the king's army who takes his position very seriously. He has a tight friendship with squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Their bond is put to the test when Count Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck) asks Le Gris to collect debts owed to him. That includes collecting from de Carrouges. The situation becomes worse when, as a reward, d'Alençon gives Le Gris a valuable piece of land that was supposed to go to de Carrouges as part of wife Marguerite's dowry. Tension between the men comes to a head when Marguerite (Free Guy's Jodie Comer) accuses Le Gris of raping her.
Taking a Rashomon-like approach to storytelling, The Last Duel is divided into three sections. The first recounts events from de Carrouges' point of view, the second from Le Gris', and the third from Marguerite's. Because it has to hit a lot of important beats in each retelling, the pacing is occasionally choppy, like it's rushing through the need-to-know stuff to get to the most important part, i.e. the alleged violation of Marguerite. That evens out by the halfway point, though, because we get a bigger sense of scope as more perspective is provided. What becomes clear is that de Carrouges worries about how his wife's rape accusation will reflect on him, Le Gris' claims consensual sex, and d'Alençon really only cares about protecting his enforcer.
At the center is Marguerite, played by Comer in a performance of staggering power. She knows the truth of what happened, yet watches as all these men work to shape her experience to fit their narratives. As the title suggests, the story ends with a duel between de Carrouge and Le Gris. There are potentially catastrophic repercussions for her, as the legal system of the time views the outcome of a duel as God's will being done. If Le Gris wins, it will be assumed that she lied, and therefore she could be punished horrifically. Comer brings a lot of nuance to Marguerite, who, as a woman in this period, would have been forbidden from speaking too openly. The actress has to show a lot of complex emotions though facial expressions and body language, a feat she accomplishes magnificently.
The other standout is Adam Driver. As always, he arrives on the screen with total commitment to his character. Le Gris is hard to pinpoint – fiercely loyal on one hand, vulnerable to his temptations on the other. Driver mixes those qualities into a portrait of a complex, volatile man. Damon and Affleck are good too, although both seem a little too modern to be in 1300s France. Affleck, in particular, is a distinctly Bostonian presence, so even though he gives d'Alençon an amusing sense of debauchery, he's still slightly out of place.
Director Ridley Scott provides The Last Duel with great scope, a stunningly exciting and violent climax, and, most importantly, a great deal of empathy for Marguerite. The screenplay by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener hits the nail on the head a little too hard in spots, but it also makes this piece of history relevant to the modern era and our society's ongoing discussion of #MeToo issues. That relevance marks it as a film deserving of attention.
out of four
The Last Duel is rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 32 minutes.