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The Last Duel
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Ridley Scott
scr Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon
prd Jennifer Fox, Nicole Holofcener, Ridley Scott, Kevin J Walsh
with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, Nathaniel Parker, Marton Csokas, Adam Nagaitis, Zeljko Ivanek, Serena Kennedy, Clare Dunne
release UK/US 15.Oct.21
21/UK 20th Century 2h32
VENICE FILM FEST
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A 14th century morality saga with present-day resonance, this sweeping epic features both big drama and massively brutal action. By shifting perspectives, director Ridley Scott explores underlying issues, but he also risks wearing out the audience by forcing us to watch horrifying events more than once. Thankfully, a robust cast stirs gritty passion into each scene, both putting the period into context and making universal comments about humanity.
In the late 1300s, Jean (Damon) fights alongside his friend Jacques (Driver) on the battlefield. Later, tension develops when Jacques turns up collecting taxes for local commander Pierre (Affleck). Meanwhile, Jean marries Marguerite (Comer), daughter of a disgraced knight (Parker). This, and a land-rights clash with Pierre, reduces Jean's status, even though he keeps proving himself on the battlefield. Then one day when he's away and Marguerite is alone, Jacques rapes her. When she decides to speak out, Jean appeals to King Charles VI (Lawther) for the right to duel Jacques to the death.
This is a time when rape was a crime against the man who owned the assaulted woman, so the fact that Marguerite makes a public statement is shocking. And since justice will be decided by God, depending on who wins the duel, her fate is tied to her husband's. The stakes grow gradually through the film in interaction with a range of side characters, as well as the fact that everything is shown three times: the truth according to Jean, Jacques and finally Marguerite.
This is ultimately Comer's movie, and she brings Marguerite's dignity and tenacity to vivid life. Damon and Driver also give powerfully textured performances. Damon's is particularly impressive, as he makes the awkward, oafish Jean likeable as a flawed man trying to do what's right. But as his mother (the awesome Walter) notes, "There is no right, only the power of men." Driver adds layers to the privileged Jacques, including in his scenes with a chillingly swaggering Affleck.
The inter-connections between these characters are fascinating as seen through three points of view, adding distinct meaning to each friendship, romance and feud. Thematically, the story hinges on the women who either give in to an unjust system or try to fight it, even if their cause is hopeless. So what the film has to say about the camaraderie of male friendships is darkly provocative. As of course is the fact that rather a lot has changed in 700 years, but not nearly enough.
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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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