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 ~ The Courier

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Iva Šindelková, Željko Ivanek

Director: Dominic Cooke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: At first glance, you may be wondering why an espionage drama with an accent on the drama was opening in theatrical release during a pandemic the same weekend a major superhero movie was debuting on a streaming service at home.  Wouldn’t most audiences be otherwise engaged devouring the much-anticipated arrival of the four-hour epic that is Zack Snyder’s Justice League, especially after the reviews were deservedly glowing?  Ah…but let’s not forget the art of counterprogramming because I think Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, the studio and distributor behind The Courier, was going for everyone else who weren’t comic book inclined and up for something a little less gargantuan.  It’s a smart move to match a surprisingly smart film, one that is far better than its staid title and dusty looking premise would otherwise imply.

I’ll be upfront and say that these murky spy thrillers are becoming slightly old hat to me, especially after seeing them done so well in stalwarts like any of the early James Bond films, 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, or even in homegrown films such as Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View.  Heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of The Courier, has had his run at the spy game before in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or in his 2014 Oscar Nominated role as Alan Turing in the WWII tale The Imitation Game.  Last year’s A Call to Spy was dismally dull and I half expected The Courier to turn out in much the same way: dry and demanding of your rapt attention with not a lot to show for it all when the lights come up.

So it was refreshing to find almost from the start there is a palpable current of energy running through the film.  It’s subtle, and the movie couldn’t ever be classified as suspense-driven or even ramped up enough to get your pulse racing (unless you get all a flutter seeing Cumberbatch’s bare backside), but it’s there and it separates The Courier from the rest of the pack.  That’s what also elevates the story of English businessman Greville Wynne’s involvement with MI6 during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis from coming off as a forgotten footnote during an important historical incident.  Screenwriter Tom O’Connor and Dominic Cooke aim to inform but don’t forget the entertainment part of moviemaking at the same time.

When USSR military intelligence agent Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) reaches out to the American embassy via a covert coded message with news that current leader Nikita Khrushchev is fast-tracking nuclear plans that would lead to war, MI6 and the CIA step in.  Their goal: find a way to pass information back and forth with Penkovsky to obtain precise information that will prevent Europe and the US from entering a high stakes battle with the Soviet Union.  Recognizing they need someone the Russians wouldn’t suspect but who could also handle the assignment, Wynne’s name is floated due to his business dealings throughout Europe.  At first, the upstanding Brit needs some convincing, but when reminded of the whole Queen and country pledge, he agrees and begins traveling back and forth to meet with Penkovsky.  Keeping both of their wives unaware of their dealings, the men strike up a friendship over time, and this personal relationship begins to threaten their overall mission, alliances, and allegiance when Khrushchev’s secret police get a whiff that a mole has burrowed its way in.

After a not-so-great showing in The Mauritanian back in February, Cumberbatch is back in the groove, nicely tuning into Wynne’s businessman persona at the outset of the film and letting the weight of the deception start to chip away at him over time.  The lies he tells his wife (an underused but still powerful Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) threaten to destroy the peaceful life he had previously held at home.  While he serves his country gladly, the aftereffects and extraordinary price Wynne will pay may be too great to come back from.  On the other side of the border, Ninidze is a strong counterpart to Cumberbatch as a father and husband with his own set of secrets to hide.  Struggling with similar fears that spring from seeing traitors executed in front of his eyes, he knows what’s in store for him if he’s caught.  The film largely belongs to the two men, but aside from Buckley there’s a very Mrs. Maisel-y performance from Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) as a CIA handler and an always welcome appearance from Željko Ivanek (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Brosnahan’s superior.

What a pleasant surprise to find this nifty little package being delivered with some confident finesse during an extended awards season that’s seen all types of overly earnest films sputter out.  Originally seen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival under the title Ironbark (a much better title taken from a code name that’s used by one of the operatives), it was filmed in 2018 and finally seeing a release now.   Though it’s not eligible for anything and definitely isn’t going to be on the radar for next year’s haul, it’s a strong showing for everyone involved and a worthy way to spend two hours.  I can’t quite recommend running out to theaters to catch The Courier but when it arrives for home viewing I would encourage you to give this one a spin.  Wynne’s involvement in the civilian spy business is fascinating to learn about and is carried off well by a cast and production team that funnels their energy and resources in the right direction – and it makes all the difference for an audience to understand the subtleties between a story that is told once and one that bears retelling in the future.