It’s hard to decide exactly what “The Last Duel” is.
It is at once both a historical epic and a #MeToo drama — albeit one set in 14th-century France during the nation’s Hundred Years’ War with England.
The writers of the film — including buddies and co-stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — seem most interested in exploring how a person tends to remember incidents at least a little differently from how others do.
While we’re not saying director Ridley Scott isn’t interested in that exploration narrative-shaping perspectives, he certainly seems intent on revisiting the glory of his 2000 Academy Award winner, “Gladiator,” with lots of clashing swords and thundering horses.
And even though, at a good two-and-a-half hours, the film is a bit longer than it needs to be considering how simple the story ultimately is, “The Last Duel” does eventually get its historical hooks into you and keep you invested until the closing credits roll.
The film is based on Eric Jager’s 2004 nonfiction book, “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France,” for which he spent about a decade researching the country’s last sanctioned duel.
The adaptation has four key characters: Jean de Carrouges (Damon), a knight whose finances are a little shaky; Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), Jean’s wife, who brings with her a sizable dowry; Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a squire and onetime friend of Jean; and the powerful Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck), a baron at the Court of Argentan and cousin of young King Charles VI (Alex Lawther or “The End of the F***ing World”).
Interestingly, “The Last Duel” consists of three chapters, one each told from the perspectives of Jean, Jacques and Marguerite. The sections are penned, respectively, by Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, the writer-director of “Lovely & Amazing” and “Friends with Money.”
The film opens with a tantalizing taste of its namesake duel in 1386 before taking us back several years to a battle in which Jean and Jacques fight side by side.
“You saved my life,” Jacques tells Jean — in the chapter told from the latter’s point of view — when the clash is over. “Thank you.”
Although Jacques holds Jean in some esteem, Pierre does not. Pierre adores Jacques, often inviting the squire to help him indulge in certain vices, Pierre finds Jean rather insufferable. (Considering how close “Good Will Hunting” stars and co-writers Damon and Affleck are, it’s enjoyable every time we get to see Pierre dismiss or insult Jean.)
As the story unfolds, we see Jean and Jacques fall in and out of friendship, first over a bitter property dispute and then when Pierre awards a promotion to Jacques that, like the parcel of valuable land, Jean feels is rightfully his.
The incident that leads “The Last Duel” to its big brawl, however, is Marguerite’s claim that, while Jean was away once again fighting for his country, she was raped by Jacques. Jean chooses to support her — perhaps out of loyalty to his wife or out of his intense hatred for his onetime friend — and the two face the potentially deadly consequences for bringing forth such a charge at that time.
The story told in Jean’s chapter is, essentially, the same explored in the following two. However, each feels remarkably distinct, and it is early in the second chapter — told from Jacques’ perspective — when “The Last Duel” becomes consuming in a way it had not previously been. That momentum carries through the chapter in which we finally get the all-important perspective of the woman making this claim. (Expect to hear some rather antiquated notions involving sex, pregnancy and rape being uttered, rather authoritatively, by men of the cloth.)
The acting is quite compelling in “The Last Duel.” And with apologies to Damon (“Stillwater,” “Ford v. Ferrari”) and Driver (“Marriage Story,” “BlacKkKlansman”), the biggest impressions are made by Affleck (“Argo”) — terrifically fun in limited screentime — and Comer (“Killing Eve,” “Free Guy”) — who holds her own in all her scenes with her more famous co-stars. (That’s not surprising, by the way; she’s a serious talent.)
Damon is re-paired with Scott, who directed him in the engrossing, Oscar-nominated 2015 science-fiction film “The Martian.” While Scott brings more spectacle to “The Last Duel” than the story may call for, he does ultimately keep the focus on its characters.
When you sit back and think about the film, though, it’s the writing that strikes you as its most impressive component, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned division of labor in that department. Kudos to Damon and Affleck for bringing aboard Holofcener, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for 2018’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
“The reason I came on in is because Matt and Ben are not women,” she says in the film’s production notes. “Not that they couldn’t write terrific women, plenty of men do, but I think that’s what I was able to add: my perspective as a female, and a different eye and a different voice, as well.”
Well played, gentlemen — and lady.
When: Oct. 15.
Rated: R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language.
Runtime: 2 hours, 33 minutes.
Stars (of four): 3.