Thursday, October 14, 2021

A 14th Century fight to the death


   Brutal and dedicated to depicting the harshest Medieval realities, The Last Duel drags its sword through the muck, igniting sparks here and there as it advances toward the climactic battle of the title.
  Based on a real incident in 14th Century France, Last Duel finds director Ridley Scott working from a screenplay by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener. Scott divides the story into three acts, first telling about rape from the vantage point of an aggrieved nobleman (Damon) whose wife (Jodie Comer) says she was raped by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). 
   Not surprisingly, Le Gris -- in his second act version --  claims to have been seduced. He also serves to highlight the archaic notion that the rape is an offense to de Carrouges, women of the time being regarded as little more than property.
    Finally, Comer's Marguerite gets an opportunity to give her rendition of events.
    Breaking the story into three sections sometimes functions as a burden on a movie that lacks the mind-bending impact of Akira Kurosawa's classic multi-vantage point story, Rashomon.
    The story begins in earnest when Comer's Marguerite de Carrouges tells her husband that she was raped by Le Gris, a knight and former best friend of Damon's Jean de Carrouges.
   A land dispute instigated by Count Pierre d'Alencon (Affleck) further complicates matters. Damon's Jean Carrouges believes he's been swindled out of land that he was promised as part of Marguerite's dowry.
   The performances tend to be a bit strange. Looking like a Medieval warthog, Damon begins the movie as a stalwart warrior but soon is revealed as a dolt. Driver's Le Gris excels in cunning and narcissism. Sporting blond hair and a goatee, Affleck portrays a nobleman who relishes debauchery and greed, viewing them as feudal entitlements.
    Of the main performances, Comer's lands hardest; her Marguerite burns with conviction and a sense of righteousness. 
   Because Marguerite's story arrives last it comes close to saving the movie from some of its more risible aspects: variable accents, mud- splattered battles, and near-ubiquitous grime.
   At two and half hours, the movie becomes a bit of a slog as we await the great duel, which Scott presents with merciless brutality. 
    The two combatants square off in a walled rectangular setting and fight to the death with lances as they ride toward each other at full speed. 
   The idea: The winner will be judged to have been telling the truth. The loser dies and, in the case of Marguerite, will be put to death for perjury.
    The screenplay sometimes seems too on the nose with its feminist leanings, but Scott also weaves welcome intrigue into the story of men who seem more interested in themselves than in anything else.
     Based on a book by Eric Jager, the movie follows the book's subtitle, dutifully unfolding a story of "crime, scandal and trial by combat." I guess that also describes an uneven, intermittently engrossing movie that seems to be trying too hard to trample any lingering romanticism about the period in which it's set.

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