Review – Good Will Jousting (“The Last Duel”)

This movie is based on the 2004 book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager, which was inspired by true events in 1386 France; sorta like blending the literary classics of The Crucible & The Scarlet Letter, but adding a bunch of swordplay. Nice!

1386 France was not known for comfort, real medicine, or people telling the truth, and no one knew this better than Lady Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon). Like Rashomon, this story is told in three chapters: The Truth According to Jean, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and finally, Marguerite. Each tale is told through the POV of the storyteller; Jean, a fearsome warrior in battle, but drowning in debt, so he decides to wed the wealthy and beautiful Marguerite, mostly for her lands and riches, but also because she’ll bear him a much-needed son. Problem is, Jean is vain, arrogant, hard-hearted, and controlling, not to mention his shrewish mother (Harriet Walter) tags along. Ugh!

Then there’s Jacques story: the faithful BFF to Jean and tax collector to the hedonistic fratboy, Lord Pierre (Ben Affleck), cousin to man-child King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). Since he’s buddy-buddy to super-rich Pierre, he gets the first crack of land and goodies, but this means usurping Jean from his rightful land and family awarded titles. Jacques is also a keen warrior, bully, womanizer, and knows how to play the game in politics. But when he meets Marguerite, he is instantly smitten by her and wants her at any cost, even if it means taking her by force.

And finally, we get to the truth: Marguerite’s tale of her lonely, loveless marriage to a noble, powerful knight that yearns for more power and more nobility. When Jean leaves to fight in the wars, Marguerite steps up and proves herself more than capable at the castle by running it better than her iron-fisted, no-nonsense husband. Her compassion wins her over with the household staff, except for Jean’s acerbic mother, who looks like she’s always sucking lemons. After she is brutally raped by Jacques, she’ll do anything (even risk horrific death) to prove her innocence.

Jean stands by her side and defends her, partly to save her, but mostly to protect his own name, honor, and dignity. This is when he demands from the King a duel (outlawed for years) against Jacques to prove who’s telling the truth under the eyes of God. The final battle is worth the price of admission for its gripping, heart-pounding, and savage fight. Reminiscent of the duel in Excalibur (over a rumor about the Queen), this vicious and nail-biting brawl makes the other look like childs play. High production values and director Ridley Scott’s (Gladiator, Blade Runner) signature camera work, this movie stands out for its visual banquet of 1386 France, where no one speaks French at all or has any trace of an accent. Hmm.

Told in a choppy, scene-by-scene style, the screenplay is by the dynamic duo of Affleck & Damon (Good Will Hunting), plus Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Instead of a rhythmic, natural flowing arc, you get a series of interconnected scenes, pieced together and edited to form a coherent plot told by three people from their point of view. That means several key scenes are repeated, but not the way the other remembered it. Scott has a handle on this, giving us the viewer, wonderfully textured and layered nuances from each character’s POV, just to show a distinction between them. Who does that?! You’ll just have to forgive many of the jarring 21st Century euphemisms that pepper the movie.

Acting-wise, this movie has its plus and minuses. Damon buries himself in the role, giving such a commanding, unflinching presence that he is thoroughly immersed into his character and is outstanding, while his partner Affleck, acts like a wine-toting Caligula who escaped from an SNL skit. Driver is always a treat, as this guy never gives a bad showing. Here, he sinks his teeth into the role, baring his soul (and chest), proving he can be both sexy and scary at the same time. But the real star here, outshining everyone is Comer. Last seen in Free Guy, you’re looking at Oscar-caliber stuff right here, people! She drives the movie with her solid performance, passion, personal arc, resounding empowerment, and willingness to stare death in the face and tell it to F-off! This movie may have two Academy Award-winning actors in it, but the film belongs to her.

**Now showing only in theaters 

The Crucible (1996)

“Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor”. I suppose author Arthur Miller thought of the 8th Commandment plus the horrific wave of 50’s McCarthyism when writing his famous 1953 play. Here, he adapted his own stage book into a screenplay with an outstanding cast of Academy Award-winning actors.

It’s 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts and you know what that means. . . the infamous Salem witch trials, where anyone could accuse anybody of being a witch and pretty much get away with it. And in a small village, a dozen young girls meet in the woods with a slave named Tituba, (Charlayne Woodard) dancing, ‘conjuring spells’, and just having fun. But in the 1600’s this practice is strictly forbidden, and when Abigail’s uncle, the Rev. Samuel Parris (Bruce Davidson) sees them partying, he freaks out. That, and two of the little girls get sick with some unknown ailment. Hell, it’s gotta be witchcraft, right?! To save her ass, Abigail (Wynona Ryder) concocts wild, imaginative, and wholly untrue stories about the ‘spirit’ visiting her and all her girlfriends. Pretty soon, she’s got the entire town bamboozled with her extraordinary lies and outlandish over-acting.

But this architect of destruction has a more sinister agenda: to destroy the life of super-handsome farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), a guy she has the hots for, but he wants nothing to do with her carnivorous lust. As the stories and tales of witchcraft increase (thanks to Abigail), the learned Rev. Hale (Rob Campbell) is called out to examine the girls and concludes there is mischief afoot. With fingers pointing at her, Abigail cranks the accusation dial up to 11 and starts to “see” the evil one everywhere, along with her trusty chorus of ten girlfriends who join her in chanting, screaming, and fainting on cue. This brings out the heavy-hitters: three Inquisition Judges!

Lead by the soulless and no-nonsense Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield), the Salem witch trials get underway and Abigail is in her element, showing off her amazing skills as a master manipulator, getting innocent people sent to prison and, eventually, to the gallows. No one is safe and only John and Rev. Hale see through this teenager’s lies when all the others are so incredibly blind to her obvious deception (well, it was 1692, after all). It all comes down to John Proctor’s stirring and heart-breaking speech, where he can either die by hanging and “keep his name” or sign a paper of lies and live. And Abigail? She never gets arrested or imprisoned; she’s free to continue her reign of terror. Ugh!!

Okay, so some things were changed from stage to screen, most notably, Abigail was altered from being twelve to seventeen, being played by a 25-year-old Ryder. Still, the message still holds up and rings true today, especially with the seering performance of Day-Lewis, who grabs ahold of John Proctor and rips into it with a vengeance. Damn, this guy’s GOOD! Ryder is excellent as the inhuman control freak without a conscience. Director Nicholas Hytner has only done a handful of films (The Madness of King George, The History Boys), his forte being a prolific stage & theater director in the U.K. His camera moves are simple, with some sweeping shots for a little pizzaz. Still, watch this for the powerful story, the incredible writing, and the acting.      

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