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The Last Duel review: Medieval tale shockingly relevant in its indictment of sexism

·Lifestyle Editor
·4 min read
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Length: 153 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck
Cast: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck

In theatres from 14 October 2021 (Singapore)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Why does it feel like so many Hollywood movies are so bloody long these days? Here are the movies released this year that are two and a half hours long:

The jury is still out on Marvel's Eternals, which will be released next month. But if you have to choose only one among the other four two-and-a-half-hours films to watch this year, my recommendation would resoundingly be The Last Duel. (Just remember to visit the toilet before entering the cinema.)

Matt Damon and Adam Driver in The Last Duel. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)
Matt Damon and Adam Driver are feudal sexists in The Last Duel. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)

Ridley Scott's latest movie was written by two of its stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck – reuniting as screenwriters after Good Will Hunting – as well as Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Can You Ever Forgive Me?). It's based on a novel by Eric Jager, which was itself a loose retelling of real events surrounding the last trial by combat which was sanctioned in France in 1386.

The period setting somehow allowed stylists to inflict a mullet upon Matt Damon and platinum blonde hair upon Ben Affleck. But don't let their unfortunate hairstyles distract you from the important issues that The Last Duel tackles.

French knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon) accuses his friend-turned-rival, squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), of raping his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Le Gris denies such a crime, and Carrouges and Marguerite can't obtain justice through France's judicial system, so the knight demands a trial by combat – a medieval tradition in which two men in a dispute fight to the death. 

Jodie Comer in The Last Duel. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)
Jodie Comer is a 14th-century Me Too martyr. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)

The story isn't so much about the actual duel, though, as what leads up to the fight.

The film is divided into three chapters, each chapter telling the "truth" according to Carrouges, Le Gris, and Marguerite respectively.

The narrative proceeds at a slow burn in Chapters 1 and 2, told by the two men. It's not until Chapter 3, told by Marguerite, the true hero of the story, that things get truly interesting and disturbing. We realise that Carrouges and Le Gris have been unreliable narrators all along, and that the events as recounted by them are distorted as only their peculiar sexist male psyches could distort them.  

The Last Duel does take artistic liberties with historical details, although the broad strokes of the story don't deviate from true events. Its value, however, lies not in historical faithfulness but in holding a mirror to contemporary society in the wake of the Me Too movement.

Ben Affleck as as Count Pierre d'Alençon in The Last Duel. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)
Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d'Alençon. Yes, his hair is platinum blonde. Deal with it. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)

Although the setting is six and a half centuries in the past, the film throws up astonishing parallels between the ways that women are treated in medieval times and the modern day. Marguerite faces doubt and suspicion from all quarters about the truth of her claim of rape. The grilling and slut-shaming she endures is essentially what victims of sexual abuse still suffer in our time. "Did you receive pleasure from the alleged sexual assault?" she is asked by a tribunal filled with men. 

The Last Duel asks the question: do men get to dominate women just because they can? But to its credit, the film doesn't boil down the conflict to a simple "men versus women" schema – Marguerite's enemies include the women around her, who don't all share her conviction in calling out men for their atrocities.

This film is what we need for the conversations that we need to have as societies grapple with various questions amidst a re-empowerment of women: What constitutes sexual consent? Should we believe women's claims of sexual abuse all the time? What are the differences by which men and women perceive sexual harassment? If you're a man, go and watch it. If you're a woman, get the men around you to go and watch it – and have a good talk about it afterwards.

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