Given their status today it’s difficult to think of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as anything other than substantial stars in their field. But, back in 1997, neither was well-known, and their collaborative efforts as screenwriters brought them to the forefront of the industry thanks to a shared Oscar win for Good Will Hunting.
Though both have dabbled in the writing field since – Damon penning the scripts for such little seen dramas as Gerry and Promised Land, Affleck earning more prolific credits with Gone Baby Gone and The Town – their talents have pooled together once more, tackling an unlikely subject, but a relevant one nonetheless in The Last Duel.
Set in 1300’s France – though its stars opt to speak in their more natural accents – the film adopts a Rashomon-type storytelling device in its depiction of a rape that took place between Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) and Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The events are told from three different perspectives (the film separating itself into a trio of chapters in its focus of each account), his, hers, and her husband’s, Jean de Carrouges (Damon).
The titular duel is the eventual outcome of the “he said, she said” line of questioning that comes forward, a type of justice that is so often left to the grace of God and one that has fallen out of favour ever since. Though the duel, and Marguerite’s account of what took place between herself and Le Gris, occupies the last third of the film – arguably its strongest moments – the lead up proves just as investing as Affleck and Damon’s script, written in collaboration with Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), enjoys framing each of its characters in a variety of shades that speaks to each performer’s strength.
Though they’d like to think as such, neither Jean or Jacques are the heroes of their own story. Jean, though named as a war hero, doesn’t have the respect of his peers. Jacques, whilst well-liked and hailed often for his appearance, has a reputation with women that keeps him from being taken seriously as a leading figure. And Marguerite, the most sympathetic and innocent of them all, is similarly shaded in a sporadic manner that questions her judgement as she quietly defies the rules imposed on her.
Given that the subject of rape and the subsequent threat to stay quiet is at the core of Ridley Scott‘s film, one would be right in suspecting either vast unpleasantness in its imagery or an unnecessary lingering in its periodic storytelling. Thankfully, neither come to fruition. Yes, it goes without saying that watching the act of sexual assault is far from pleasing to the eye, but Scott wisely never indulges in such aesthetics. And though the film itself runs for 153 minutes, it never once feels as if it overstays its welcome.
The Last Duel isn’t the most obvious script from Damon and Affleck – who would’ve thought we’d be getting a commentary on rape culture – but their collective intelligence and wit keeps the film at a topical forefront whilst simultaneously reminding us of their performative strength. As much as an against-type Damon and a smarmy Affleck are a pleasure to behold, the latter is truly having a ball utilising his comedic grease, it’s Comer that utterly walks away with the film entirely, honing a grace and an assurance that elevates an oft-delicious play of words.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Last Duel is screening in Australian cinemas from October 21st, 2021.