Movie Review ~ The Last Duel

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris. Her husband, knight Jean de Carrouges, challenges him to trial by combat, the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.

Stars: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the big summer effects bonanzas being on hold for an entire year and the prestigious costume dramas pushed out for better positioning at award chances to later in 2021 or even 2022, audiences have been lacking in the area of the grand epic for going on two years.  Sure, we’ve had the occasional Marvel film here and there to satiate some sense of wonder but I’m talking about those films that make you feel like you’re back in Hollywood’s heyday when everything was made on a studio lot and extras numbered in the thousands.  As recently as a decade ago we were still getting these movies, but they’ve taken a backseat to films that are easier to produce with limited involvement from humans that are added in post-production.  The sets aren’t real, and the overall ambiance feels phony…making the stakes not feel quite as high for historical epics involving swords, sandals, arrows, chainmail, etc.

One director out there hasn’t shied away from continuing on the legacy of the epic and that’s Ridley Scott, a filmmaker often taken a bit for granted in the business for his tendency to lean into fare of the sheer entertainment variety.  Though primarily an action director, he was also behind Thelma & Louise, Matchstick Men, and A Good Year so he is known to stretch when the mood suits him.  That lighter touch helps a bit in Scott’s newest film, The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction novel “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” which details the final legally recognized duel that was fought in France.  One man is accused by another of the most heinous act of violation against his wife, a charge that leads them to the highest court in the country where they leave it in God’s hands to decide who is telling the truth.  If the defendant dies during the duel, it will prove the woman was telling the truth.  If the accused comes out of the duel alive and kills his accuser, well then, he is telling the truth and the man’s wife will be burned alive for her lie.  Not the soundest execution of justice and back in 2019 when the film was first announced, not the most promising of a plot description for a town just settling into the first wave of post #MeToo productions.

Adapted by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (yes, they did win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting), the two were wise to ask Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to join them in their journey in bringing Jager’s novel to the screen.  This not only brought some needed balance to the screenplay and gave a stronger voice overall to the script but allowed for the central female character to not be written from just one point of view.  The result is a surprisingly swift feature broken into three chapters that tell the same story, just from the perspectives of different characters.  Employing a Rashomon-style technique in storytelling isn’t anything revelatory but in the hands of pros like Scott and his cast, the small similarities and even smaller subtle differences unique to each version of events keeps this one in a gripping space where the edge of your seat moments extend far beyond what happens during the titular duel.

Audiences are wise to buckle up and pay attention for the first thirty minutes which sets the stage for the friendship and eventual rivalry between knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon, The Martian) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Annette).  Though Carrouges has the more noble name and throws himself into harm’s way for the honor of his king, he’s unliked by most that know and fight alongside him because of his selfishness and constant need for recognition.  That’s the opposite of Le Gris who, at least at first, is content to just be welcomed in by people in a higher status and be a trusted confidant.  Over time, this skill with ingratiating himself to nobility pushes Le Gris ahead of Carrouges, a sleight that causes a rift in the friendship that cannot be mended.

While the men are sorting out their business, widower Carrouges meets and marries his second wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) and moves her in with his cruel mother (wickedly nasty Harriet Walter, Herself) who picks away at her while he is away in battle.  Unable to conceive a child during their years together, the two are at odds when he takes a trip to the city the same day his mother decides to leave Marguerite alone for the day.  Of course this is the same day Le Gris, who has been obsessed with Marguerite ever since meeting her when Carrouges decided to bury the hatchet, pays a visit. 

Some version of these events plays out three times until this point and it mostly is the same story with tiny tweaks to attitudes depending on who is telling the tale.  In Carrouges version, Marguerite is much more docile, to hear Le Gris tell it, Marguerite was flirting with him and encouraged his visit, but in Marguerite’s retelling, or ‘The Truth’ as the words linger longer on the screen insinuate, neither man read the signs correctly. Watching different iterations also means audiences have to witness a brutal rape twice so here’s your warning this unpleasant encounter is on display and though absent of nudity or gore, is more gruesome than anything that plays out later in the vicious battle royale between Carrouges and Le Gris.  Can a scene like this be shot with any kind of sensitivity?  I doubt it, but Comer bravely gives it her all and Scott allows her room to breathe.

Speaking of Comer, with the amount of male energy flying around and the dueling taking up such a major piece of the action, it’s saying something the actress is far and away the winner of the evening when the credits roll.  Making a splash on television even before her award-winning run in the acclaimed spy series Killing Eve, Comer graduates to the A-list with a star making (and surely Oscar nominated) turn as a woman unwilling to back down or be intimidated from anyone or anything, even a horrific threat of death.  Already victimized once, she refuses to go through it again via her husband or even the highest court in the land…and believe me, the court sure tries. 

Backing Comer up in the acting department are Damon and Driver who dial back their oft-tendency to grandstand with Driver in particular making a strong case for himself as capable of even more than his most loyal fans have thought.  True, he’s playing a pretty despicable guy but for a while he’s almost endearing and definitely more tolerable than Damon’s character.  I mean, the hair alone on Carrouges is enough to drive you crazy.  In past films, Damon tends to gnaw at the scenery when he gets worked up but anytime Affleck (Live by Night) is onscreen in The Last Duel there’s nothing left to consume because he’s swallowed up the entire caravan of costumes by Janty Yates (Prometheus) and the sumptuous set decorations courtesy of Judy Farr (Rocketman).  Of all the people that were bound to overact, I wasn’t expecting it to be Affleck but with his blond hair and a blond goatee that looks like a tennis ball was just cut in half and stuck on his pointy chin, it’s a performance that treks into high camp.  And he doesn’t even go all the way with it.  There are several scenes where his lothario character is meant to be scampering around chasing after women and they’re all naked and he’s fully clothed – we all know this character would be naked as a jaybird without a care in the world.  It’s a small detail but became a major one in my mind considering what the movie puts the Comer character through.

I initially thought I’d find long jags of the film slow but with Scott at the helm it moves like a locomotive, peppered here and there with his trademark flair for a well-staged battle scene.  With the R-rating firmly in place he’s able to make these incredibly violent and in your face, leading up to and including the final duel between the two men.  It all makes for an experience that has a solid impact with parallels to victim-blaming that resonate even today.  The Last Duel might be about the final official battle over honor in France, but it leaves audiences with the recognition that the war was just beginning.

Movie Review ~ Herself

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Struggling to provide her daughters with a safe, happy home, Sandra decides to build one – from scratch. Using all her ingenuity to make her ambitious dream a reality, Sandra draws together a community to lend a helping hand to build her house and ultimately recover her own sense of self.

Stars: Clare Dunne, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Shadaan Felfeli, Cathy Belton

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  All through November and December leading up to Christmas, I did something I never did before, I watched a whole bunch of Hallmark movies in all their holiday predictable glory.  Maybe it was because this year I just needed something safe and comforting that wasn’t going to challenge me much during a stressful time of year but the movies just keep finding their way onto my DVR and I couldn’t stop watching them.  Even now, nearly halfway though January, I’m still finishing them off and not the least bit tired of their harmless charm.  In terms of quality of film, I have to say that for as much crap as these films have received over the years, a number of the ones I watched were quite decent and not the same silly dreck as others I have seen in the past.  All in all, they were just fine films.

Watching the new Amazon Studios release Herself, I heard that “just fine” sentiment echoing around in my head a lot as well.  While the movie has its good intentions, solid performances, engaging storyline, and is well-told by the filmmakers who obviously have invested an inkling of heart into the effort, there’s nothing that sets the movie truly apart from the crowd.  For a movie that wants to push some emotional buttons in the audience, that just won’t do because ultimately, I felt that something more had to be done to go further and elevate it to a higher level than where it lands.  Not every movie has to aspire to be better than what’s come before but when you put a spotlight on yourself and ask for that comparison, you better have something that actually makes you linger in the memory for some time after the credits are done.

When her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) finally takes things too far, Sandra (Clare Dunne, Spider-Man: Far from Home, who also wrote the film) leaves him and soon finds herself homeless trying to raise two daughters on her own in Dublin.  While she’s attempting to make ends meet by taking a job as a home aid to a doctor recovering from a broken hip (Harriet Walter, Rocketman) she thinks about how to create a new life and home for her young daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara).  Then, an idea comes to her on a bus ride home and she brings it to the housing authority that has been paying for all three of them to stay in a hotel.  Why not help her buy a piece of land so she can build a house?  Ultimately, the loan she needs for the land and the house would be cheaper than what they’re paying for their hotel upkeep now.  Unsurprisingly, she’s denied the solution to her current problem by an agency that can’t see a bigger picture presenting itself.

She’s not undeterred for long, though, because just like all great feel-good movies, Sandra benefits from having the right friends in the right place at the right time and soon she’s building her house in the most unlikely of places.  As she gathers her resources for the house and a motley crew of workers to assist her in its creation, a dark shadow appears in the skies.  Though he’s continued to see his children through court-appointed visits, her husband now wants the entire family to be together again.  Yet the house is a secret from him because it’s Sandra’s chance to finally get away from him; the longer the house takes to build the harder it is to keep it out of the conversation.  Leading to a series of dramatic climaxes and intense scenes that offset the good-natured charm offered in the first hour, Herself eventually turns into a standard drama symphony with the usual notes to play.

Let me be totally clear, Herself is a perfectly fine watch, it’s one I would recommend for Dunne’s leading performance and especially her scenes later in the film.  Even if it’s these very scenes that are the most commonplace, Dunne sells them in a way that gives them a breath of fresh air.  She can’t quite erase their familiarity, though, so the audience always is two or three steps ahead of the plot, up to and including its crescendo moment.  The husband is charming enough when he is nice to lead you to believe he may have changed but Anderson does well having his true colors show just below the surface in almost every scene, proving to all of us he isn’t as good at hiding it as he thinks he is.  It’s also worth it for Walter’s turn as a once-towering professional in her field that has been hampered by illness and personal tragedy in her life.  I was worried the relationship would start to look like the one in Wild Rose which was more of a savior/lost lamb situation but Dunne and Walter make a nice team in that both are strong women who lean on each other as they walk forward.

Director Phyllida Lloyd is best known for creating the stage musical Mamma Mia!, directing the movie version, and producing its hugely popular sequel.  While there’s music to be heard here (it must be noted the soundtrack is pretty dreadful, filled with songs that are so on the nose you practically want to wipe your TV with Kleenex), Lloyd is comfortable with the drama and lets the camera linger on some emotionally raw moments.  Thankfully, abuse scenes are either shown in quick flashes or not at all, the memories are shown on the faces of the victims and that is illustrative enough.  Her handling of the dramatic storyline feels more at ease than she was with The Iron Lady, yet it’s not as if you watch the movie and can tell what the director brought to the film.  She has no signature style to speak of so you get the sense that anyone could have really directed this.

Truly, Herself was always going to face a steep climb because it’s a story that is oft-told.  A battered wife packing up and leaving her no-good husband with her kids in tow and running into hard times trying to keep her children is something we’ve seen in books, TV, movies, songs, etc.  There’s a curious lack of overall ambition to make the movie something more than what is on the surface and that is where I found myself disappointed overall.  Dunne wrote a good script and turns in a strong performance along with Walter…that should be enough, but something’s missing from the final blueprint of Herself.