Movie Review: Ridley Scott’s Dark, Dirty and Bloody Middle Ages — “The Last Duel”

“The Last Duel,” Ridley Scott’s “Rashomon,” is a brutish, well-acted and stunningly-detailed account of an infamous scandal from the supposed “Age of Chivalry.”

It’s a tale of rivalries, royal favor and rape from the Caroline era of the Hundred Years War, that 14th century blood feud between England and France over royal succession in their until-then Norman-entangled royal bloodlines.

And as Scott’s film — cleverly adapted from Eric Jager’s book into the “Rashomon” three-points-of-view storytelling style by Nicole Holofcener and Oscar winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — makes nakedly clear, “Chivalry” had little to do with any of it.

Scott and his collaborators find the ugly human foibles underneath the armor, court finery and gowns and make this story from an age when the one percent had the power of life and death over everyone else, when women were literally “property,” topical and timely.

It won’t be for everyone. But if you like your Middle Ages dark, dingy and dastardly, it’s quite the bumpy, blood-stained ride.

Damon stars as Jean de Carrouges, a scarred and battle-hardened illiterate of the Norman French nobility. Carrouges knows combat and isn’t particularly deft at anything else. He has a fortress and stands to inherit a bigger one and the captaincy of the region when his father dies.

But The Black Death took his wife and young son, his heir. It’s depopulated Europe to such a degree that one and all complain of the rising cost of labor, the inability to make their serf-master land use tradition pay (Sound familiar?).

We meet him as the headstrong Carrouges leads his friend and fellow squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) in a charge to “save” hostages being butchered in front of them by their foes.

Carrouges saves the dashing Le Gris, who courteously pauses to thank him in mid-battle. But they lose the city of Limoges, which they were supposed to defend.

A sidenote here. Scott and his screenwriters can’t bear to name the cutthroats with long bows that these French fellows are facing — “The English.” Hilarious.

Damon makes Carrouges a fiercely loyal bulldog of a man, simple and brave and blunt enough to rub the more courtly the wrong way. His bluntness helps him bargain for the fair daughter (Jodie
Comer of “Killing Eve” and “Free Guy”) of a rich traitor (Nathaniel Parker). But it’s no help at all in dealing with the king’s greedy libertine cousin, Count Pierre d’Alençon, played with decadent dash by Ben Affleck.

Over the course of several years, Carrouges runs up against the high handed Count time and again and faces humiliations even as he spends his blood in defense of their king, the foppish, not yet “mad” but seemingly inbred Charles VI (Alex Lawther) in France and Scotland.

That erodes his relationship with Le Gris, who being literate and mathematically capable, always has favor in the Count’s employ, a place at his table and a standing invitation to his fellow libertine’s orgies.

That quarrel, complete with lawsuits, sets up “The Last Duel” we see about to take place in the film’s opening scene. A rape charge, a lady wronged and more importantly, a husband suffering injury to his “property” calls for the ancient justice of trial by combat, a fight to the death so that “God will prove” who is telling the truth by letting the just defeat the unjust.

That story — spanning some years leading up to the 1386 duel — is told three times, from three points of view in three chapters — “The Truth according to Jean de Carrouges,” “according to Jacques Le Gris” and “according to Lady Marguerite de Carrouges.”

We’re left with a little doubt about what actually happened, the lies and manipulations and the mortal stakes involved when The Lady Marguerite makes her accusation and begs for justice and “right.”

“Right?” her viperous mother-in-law (Harriet Walter) hisses. “There IS no right. There is only the power of men!”

The casting here is shockingly effective, with Damon looking stocky and battle-beaten, at home on a war horse and in armor. Affleck, dyed blond — soul patch (not quite a Van Dyke) included, is a revelation, managing the menacing, aloof and vulpine Count with droll ease.

Driver’s Le Gris is a little of both of those men — a dark inversion of the historic myth of a “courtly ideal,” an able soldier (if not a leader), a tall, dashing and well-read charmer of court, catnip to the ladies.

Comer, benefiting from the contributions of veteran screenwriter (and sometime director) Holofcener (“Friends with Money,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), navigates a tricky “stay in her lane” character, a victim, powerless in who her father chooses for her to wed, with no Hollywood hope of fighting off a man of war intent on assault. There are just enough scenes of her with other ladies of her class to suggest their recognition of their “chattel” status, but smart enough to chafe at the injustice of it and the many shortcomings of the men who rule them.

The three “chapters” let us see that in action, with Carrouges deluded into seeing noble bearing that others do not, Le Gris viewing his “friend” differently and seeing nothing wrong with his many provocations and the Lady Marguerite seeing their flaws and perhaps misjudging her own.

The dialogue hits a droll Middle Ages sweet spot now and again, but the performances are as immersive as the film’s flawless production design. Irish and French locations capture the age when Paris was little more than a hovel, a few buildings and bridges with this gigantic cathedral slowly rising on the Île de la Cité in the Seine.

For decades, the gold standard for gory, accurate recreations of Medieval hand-to-hand combat have been Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight,” which inspired Mel Gibson’s even more brutal and bloodier “Braveheart,” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran.” “The Last Duel” joins them in its depiction of the desperate, unsentimental savagery of bludgeoning, stabbing and slicing someone to death before they just as desperately try to do the same to you.

The “Rashomon” structure is repetitive by design, and that weighs down this two and a half hour plunge into “The Real (Unchivalrous) Middle Ages.”

But I found it fascinating, first scene to last — stunningly detailed in its snowy combat in the “Gladiator” tradition and intriguing that Affleck and Damon, Holofcener and Scott would see this long-ago event as relevant, “A Distant Mirror” to our troubled, sexist and reactionary present day.

Rating: R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language

Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Marton Csokas, Alex Lawther, Tallulah Haddon and Ben Affleck.

Credits: Directed by Ridley Scott, scripted by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, based on Eric Jager’s book. A 20th Century Studios release.

Running time: 2:32

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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