Ridley Scott directs this epic medieval tale based on the true story of the last trial by combat (in this case jousting) fought in France. Although touted as a film about a woman’s fight for justice after rape, this is very much a film by the boys for the boys, namely Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who both co-wrote and produced the film as well as taking leading roles.
The premise is a fascinating one: in 1386 Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) accused Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape. Her husband Jean (Matt Damon) was given the opportunity to fight for her honour, the winner of the duel also the winner of the trial. The writers have decided to offer an account of the back story and the rape from three perspectives, the first chapter Jean’s point of view, the second Jacques’ and the third (entitled ‘The Truth’) Marguerite’s. This trio of viewpoints mirrors Rashomon, but this is really the only comparison that can be made with that masterpiece.
To their credit, Damon and Affleck decided to hand over the writing of the third chapter to Nicole Holofcener (of Friends with Money fame), which was a good call. In the first two chapters Comer is reduced to an almost silent sideline, all wide-eyed glances and narrow substance. In the third, she is given a meatier role and a voice. Yet despite the story, which is very much Marguerite’s, the writers have focused almost entirely on the men: on their friendship, on their rivalry, on their relationship with the spoilt and debauched Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) and of course on the duel. Despite Marguerite’s learning (‘A woman who reads!’) and intelligence, little is revealed about her inner life, her thoughts on her marriage or her role as a mere chattel to be bartered and sold.
As with Gladiator, Scott provides memorable battle scenes that swoop down from above to place the viewer in the midst of the bloody and visceral fighting. With every sword thrust and axe swing comes the sound and sight of lives being lost and pain being inflicted. The ruler is a spoilt child whose blood lust and desire to see suffering is matched only by his inadequacy as a man (in this case, Charles VI, played by Alex Lawther). Lawther’s gestures of glee during the duel recall those of Joaquin Phoenix during the combat scenes in Gladiator.
Much will be made of the men’s hair: Affleck with his peroxide bowl cut, eyebrows and beard, and Damon’s truly hideous mullet merit a few disparaging words. So awful are their combined tonsures that they momentarily distract us from the action. Only Driver’s luxuriant locks are spared. Having old chums Affleck and Damon on screen together again – this time playing mortal enemies – probably amused them more than it will amuse viewers.
Despite plenty of Latin being spouted and a focus on language, there are a few issues with how language is used here, Pierre calling Jacques a ‘libertine’, which in 14th-century English had no connotations of debauchery or decadence. American accents have been toned down to sound British, but strangely Harriet Walter, who plays Jean’s mother, has given herself an odd accent that is not exactly French but which conceals her own glorious natural voice.
Despite coming in at 152 minutes, this is not a turgid tale. Like a medieval knight-errant, Sir Ridley Scott gallops apace and the time passes quickly enough as he shifts the action from battlefield to court to hearth and home. His focus – the peasants at their work, the muck and bustle of medieval daily life – ensures the film is crammed with interesting visual detail. The sets, particularly Pierre’s castle, are wonderful. There are some fine performances and some cracking scenes, particularly the final duel, which is beautifully crafted and genuinely riveting. It’s ironic that a film whose central character is a woman with little power or voice should allow her – or any other female character – to say so little. Nevertheless, Scott provides plenty to enjoy in this knight’s latest tale.