It’s no surprise that Ridley Scott, who’s made his share of swaggering manly epics, has directed what may be the big screen’s first medieval feminist revenge saga. In addition to his love for men with mighty swords, Scott has an affinity for tough women, women who are prickly and difficult and thinking, not bodacious cartoons. They’re invariably lovely, of course, but then everything in Ridley Scott’s dream world has an exalted shimmer.
Even the mud and blood gleam in “The Last Duel,” an old-style spectacle with a #MeToo twist. Based on the fascinating true story of a lady, a knight and a squire in 14th-century France, the story was big news back in the day and has been retrofitted to contemporary sensibilities by Scott and an unusual troika of screenwriters: Nicole Holofcener and two of the movie’s stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Together, they tear the moldy fig leaf off a Hollywood staple, the Arthurian-style romance — with its chivalric code, knightly virtues and courtly manners — to reveal a mercenary, transactional world of men, women and power. The result is righteously anti-romantic.
Damon, uglied up with slashing facial scars and a comically abject mullet, plays Jean de Carrouges, a nobleman down on his luck who makes ends meet by fighting on behalf of the king. The machinations start early and soon go into overdrive after he marries a younger woman, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), who brightens his life but doesn’t do much for his sour disposition or unfortunate grooming. Vainglorious and petty, his lips screwed into a pucker, Jean settles down with Marguerite but seethes over his friend turned antagonist, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, a juiced-up Basil Rathbone), a social climber aligned with Count Pierre, a licentious power player (Affleck, in debauched glory).
It’s a juicy lineup of familiar characters who are greedier and pettier than those that usually populate historical epics. But there is no noblesse oblige or courtly love, no dragons, witchy women or aggrandizing British accents. Instead, there are debts, grudges, fights, liaisons, an occasional naked nymph and men endlessly jockeying for position. Jean marries Marguerite to boost his prestige and wealth; Jacques enriches himself by currying favor with Pierre. For her part, Marguerite is passed from father to husband, who later, in a startling moment, commands her to kiss Jacques in public as evidence of Jean’s resumed good will toward his frenemy. It’s a catastrophic gesture.