As Halloween season rolls right along, I’m doing my best to work through the films that I’m a little behind the curve on. Ridley Scott’s latest film looks and feels the part of an epic period piece that’s elevated by some fantastic performances and a smart approach to its narrative style.
Set in 14th century France, two noblemen, and former friends, would enter into trial by combat to determine the outcome of a rape case levied by one man’s wife against the other man. It was the last time judicial Trial by Combat was sanctioned by the Parlement de Paris and the story remains an important piece of cultural history in France.
Adapted from Eric Jager’s book, the story’s relevance lies in the “he said – she said” nature of the case but more importantly it highlights the mechanisms of the judicial system and society at large, and how little that’s changed over the course of 600+ years.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck reunited and teamed with Nicole Holofcener to write this story for the screen. Damon and Affleck’s personal touches can be seen and felt throughout the film (as they both have roles to act them out) and the subtle, strategic humor in the script has their fingerprints on it. The other thing that stands out is the narrative style.
It would have been simpler to tell the story in a straight line and write the characters to embody all of the qualities these writers wanted the audience to feel. Instead, each of the three main characters’ stories is told in parallel from their own perspectives. That sets the stage for the third act where Lady Marguerite de Carrouges’ version of the story strips away the bravado and brash pride of the two men who fight to determine the validity of her claim. That’s where Holofcener’s experience as a filmmaker and storyteller stood out.
Ridley Scott brought the experience from a film like Gladiator and made 14th century France tangible, especially during the combat scenes. However, it was the softer touch of the three parallel narratives that stands out the most as it mirrors the very nature of the story itself. Shooting and then re-shooting the scenes, with all the subtle differences that cater to each characters’ perspectives, greatly enriched the storytelling. By seeing how these characters see themselves and then seeing how they see each other, it gives the audience the chance to read between the lines and choose their own version of the truth, rather than being force-fed by one person’s narrative. I thought it was an excellent choice for this story, although it does push the runtime a bit on the longer side.
We are treated to a number of strong performances, the pinnacle among those belongs to Jodie Comer. She’s had a breakout year so far and this might be the cherry on top that gets her into the end-of-the-year awards conversations. The thing that makes her performance more powerful is the dichotomy between her portrayals as the wife of Jean de Carrouges and as her own fully realized person. As she essentially tells her own story in the film’s final act, the full scope of her talent comes rushing to the surface in a number of powerful scenes. It’s a complete 180 from the character we’ve seen up until that point and she takes full ownership of the key scenes.
Adam Driver continues his ascension with yet another excellent performance. Despite his undeniable charisma, Driver excels in playing pretty loathsome characters. His gift is making these roles compelling and his depiction of Jacques Le Gris falls right into that category.
Matt Damon plays Jean de Carrouges with intensity and pettiness, depending on who’s telling the story, but it’s a very workman-like performance by design. Ben Affleck got to have all the fun playing Count Pierre d’Alençon and he’s very entertaining. There are some great moments shared between the two and it was good to see them having fun with one another in those moments. I should say that the biggest beneficiary to the script’s humor was Alex Lawther who did a magnificent job as the young King Charles VI.
The production design by Arthur Max was excellent and the film carries the weight of a large-scale period piece. Frequent Scott collaborator Dariusz Wolski is one of the best cinematographers in the game and he captures this world with powerful imagery. One of the best parts of any big-budget film like this is the costumes and Janty Yates designed some remarkable looks for the characters. There is no question that this film was made with great attention to detail and precision and plenty of effort went into things like location scouting.
Where this one lands amongst the year’s best films remains to be seen, but I can confidently say that it’s one of the better all-around films of 2021.
Recommendation: Fans of Ridley Scott should be happy to see his return to a grand scale but, once you’re there, stay for the performances and screenplay.
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