'The Last Duel': Medieval epic explores rape culture

The Last Duel film
The film uses a three-part structure to reveal the perspectives of each of the main characters.

The Last Duel
Directed by Ridley Scott
20th Century Studios, 2021. 153 mins
In cinemas

Perhaps the last place you would expect to find commentary on the #MeToo movement and the difficulties of reporting sexual assault cases is in a medieval epic detailing the last judicial trial by combat in 14th century France — but director Ridley Scott’s film The Last Duel, does exactly that.

The film tells the story of the Norman knight Jean de Carrouges and his bitter rivalry with his former friend Jacque Le Gris; whom he accuses of raping his wife, Margueritte de Carrouges. Based on the novel The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial By Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager, the film uses a three-part structure to reveal the perspectives of each of the main characters leading up to the duel.

After ongoing disputes over land ownership, military strength and titles, Carrouges, played by a medieval mullet-wearing Matt Damon, and Le Gris, played by Adam Driver, manoeuvre themselves into a fight-to-the-death when Margueritte, brilliantly portrayed by Jodie Comer, tells her husband of the horrible crime Le Gris has committed.

I was wary going into this film, concerned that it would play on outdated and sexist rape-revenge tropes, or frame the story as the heroic quest of a knight to win back his wife’s honour. Fortunately, Nicole Holofcener’s screenwriting talent (she co-wrote the film with Damon and Ben Affleck) and the film's unique structure makes clear that the perspective that matters most is that of Margueritte. Indeed, both Carrouges and La Gris are shown to be vile, misogynistic abusers by today's standards.

What is considered the norm in 14th century France — men’s ownership of their wives and daughters, the lack of legal rights for women, the total power of feudal lords, and the vast wealth disparity between the aristocrats and the peasants — may seem vastly different to the present day, however many of these issues are still ongoing. For example, the allegation of rape against former Attorney-General Christian Porter was never investigated by NSW Police, the legal system is weighted against victims of sexual abuse, and wealth inequality is rampant.

For these reasons, The Last Duel is an important and relevant film. It is clear that the #MeToo movement, with high-profile abusers in Hollywood such as Harvey Weinstein being outed by brave survivors, has led to these issues being explored more openly in blockbuster films.

The performances of the three main cast members are commendable, as is Affleck’s performance as the blonde-haired Count Pierre d’Alençon. Each retelling of the story ratches up the tension and by the time the titular duel begins, the stakes have been raised high, which makes for an incredibly tense and brutal fight scene that had me on the edge of my seat.

While The Last Duel is not a perfect exploration of the issues surrounding sexual assault and the #MeToo movement — it is fairly surface level and heavy-handed — it is definitely a step in the right direction. Let us hope for a world in which stories like this are confined to the realm of fiction.