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The Last Duel (2021)

CRUMBLIES…

A serious film, this. So pardon the old man’s frown. It’s about an ancient rape and the voice of women – and the power of men that doesn’t so much silence as drown them out. Like that sentence.

Just out, incongruously enough, on Disney+ (thank you young Steve for getting the streamer to old Jack), it flopped in the cinema, apparently. Which, given there’s a world pandemic of COVIDdy nastiness making its way through the Greek alphabet, implies waiting a bit longer to release the thing would have been smart. But, hey-ho, it’s out there, and jostling with Mickey and the MCU to bring grim content to the world. It’s not uncleverly called The Last Duel (2021).

So, back in France of the 1300s, we meet Le Matt Damon (here with an appalling haircut and a delicate edge to his masculine dumbness) and le Adam Driver (here considered beautiful by women and tempting in a Thomas Cromwellly way by a local French governor, le Ben Affleck). Le Damon has certain expectations and entitlements as a man of war and questionable inheritance. The now eponymous – and isn’t art better for it ? – la Dame Harriet Walter is his Mum: all starkness and humanised cool and the only oldster of significance. Alas, as per gender and century, glowery and powerless. Dad is dead and Damon finds a wife from a shamed family. He marries for land and beauty. Cos men are like that.

This is all true, by the way. The elite of 14th Century France are like the elite of any country in any century. Essentially arseholes murdering for their gods and their power, and casually swatting the heads off the rest of us. 

Anyway, le Damon and la Jodie Comer get married. Not uncomforting rules start to pop up from the time: La Comer can’t get preggers without experiencing the “little death” at close of sexy times, say the gods. Le Damon is… perfunctory and artless on the four-poster, so she doesn’t get pregnant for ages, but readily lies about his bedroom skills in court a while later. Cos she has to, really. Le Damon heads off to war and his ex-friend, le Driver, who has bagged the respect of the governor, promised land and le Damon’s Dad’s old job, pops round when she’s the only one in the castle and rapes her. 

Yes…

Now…

Ridley Scott directs, Affleck, Damon and Nicole Holofcener write, and Jodie Comer simply owns the movie. It is told in three chapters, from the perspective of the husband, the rapist and the wife. So it repeats. The above summary is nuanced through some top-drawer characterisation, tweaked every-so-slightly by each narrator.  The basic facts, however, stay the same. It is more than worth watching them all, albeit the structure made old Jack here well aware of how long The Last Duel runs and how few winters I have left. There is sufficient difference in the scene choices, and in Comer’s third in particular, to get you to the end. 

To the nuances: 

Le Damon is a bit of a gruff dick throughout, representative of the dumb noble male, fully empowered by a society nailed in place by religion, violence and equal dumbness. He loves his wife and his mum. There’s a dash of soapy content to show how little his brain understands women, but he is ultimately a noble soul and – after some shouty demands for the truth – he goes to the limit for his raped wife. But you never lose the feeling – even in his version – that he’s protecting his own dignity, in le Driver’s that he’s a dope, and in la Comer’s that he’s the price paid by women of, well, any time. 

Le Driver is grasping, delusional and has never had his masculine power challenged. So he is also successful. Judged pretty but a fool by the women, he shags his way through court and has none of the social skills needed to manage his first real crush. So the lothario tricks his way into La Comer’s place and almost prays his way through the rape, presuming shared passion despite the fight she puts up. Again, he is all about himself, supported to the hilt by the governor and even the penances on offer from his god. No matter the human he’s wrecked.

And then the truth. The woman’s voice. The story which, you are made to wonder, isn’t automatically heard – or believed – over le Damon’s hubris and le Driver’s arrogance. A tale of the 14th century or yesterday? The film lands Comer’s voice without a hint of virtue signalling (wrote a man…). This is real, about the person not just the point. So it really lands.

The Last Duel can be noisy. It flips into grisly, bloody battle scenes to set the standard of the men’s world. It dips into the patterns of court: the usual politics of lust and proximity to royalty that pour from Henry VIII’s presence in literature – and the male frame for the women’s world. And it has moments of clever calm: the  girl wife becomes a woman through estate management not sex; she rides tensions with the mother-in-law, what passes for a medic, a priest or a regal court of law without losing the sense of a smart soul contained by custom. Comer is terrific. Surely, kudos to the writing, to Scott and to Driver, but Comer shines in the quiet, when the camera lingers, when her eyes let you in to her trap, and when she waits – tense and nearly lost – for her society’s rules to acknowledge her in its violent, male pantomime. That last duel.

Grim, grisly, and great, this film hovers on the silly only a couple of times (21st century faces dirtied up as peasants is a challenge), but the thing is beautiful. Its structure is a test. And its style and its message are properly resonant.

And there’s a duel. But you’ll be watching Jodie Comer throughout.

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