“Trial by combat.“ That is Tyrian Lannister’s request when he is accused of a horrible crime in “Game of Thrones.” This was a realistic way of resolving legal disputes centuries ago, even though that is no longer the way things are done. We have laws and due process.
But at the tail end of the 14th century, one specific example of trial by combat took place as the last of its kind before being outlawed throughout the whole of France. This is the backdrop for Ridley Scott’s most recent film, “The Last Duel.”
The film stars Matt Damon as Jean de Carouges, a French nobleman known for his warmongering and battlefield prowess. The film centers on his challenge to battle Jaques Le Gris (Adam Driver) whom he accuses of raping his wife, who is played by British actress Jodie Comer.
The events leading to the story’s climactic title fight are interesting retellings from the primary characters’ differing perspectives. Each testimony includes several of the same events, with the perspectives and some dialogue changed to accommodate which character is providing the information.
This is an interesting concept that isn’t often used in film; it requires scenes being filmed with multiple variations, with certain sequences feeling shorter or protracted depending on which character provides the account.
This technique was most famously used in the Japanese film “Rashomon,” directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1950. That film also centered on multiple retellings of a young woman’s assault and claims against her credibility.
The performances are fantastic, though it feels odd so many American actors were cast when French characters have notably and historically been portrayed by British actors and actresses. Regardless, the performances are quite believable.
Scott is at his best when directing character-driven films such as this; the attention to detail for the sets, the costuming and the historical period all play to his strengths. The dialogue does feel a little stilted, but we’re talking about an era when pomp and circumstance overshadow simple conversation.
The film’s use of different perspectives feels a little disjointed at first; some of the early scenes feel rushed and you’re not sure as an audience member how much time has passed between one event and the next. That changes when the viewer realizes they are getting the same story from three different angles.
The true tension of the story however comes from the characters’ own perceptions; most films employ an objective third person narrative and “The Last Duel” is narrated by three different people whose subjective viewpoints make each one just as unreliable as a next.
While some of the biological and scientific understanding of the time are laughable by today’s context, the dialogue in the story demonstrates a clear understanding of just how dark the Dark Ages used to be. Especially when you consider Comer’s character faces execution if her claim proves false.
Fans of historical drama and fiction, and Scott will enjoy this movie. You can find it on Blu-ray, DVD and digital.