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'The Last Duel' review: Near-perfect blend of topical drama and grand entertainment

Adam Driver (l) as Jacques LeGris and Matt

Adam Driver (l) as Jacques LeGris and Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges in "The Last Duel."   Credit: 20th Century Studios/Patrick Redmond

THE LAST DUEL (3 ½ STARS)

PLOT In medieval France, a woman risks her life to accuse a powerful man of rape.

CAST Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck

RATED R (extreme violence and graphic sexuality)

LENGTH 2:32

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE A gripping true story that draws unsettling parallels between past and present.

A woman’s accusations of sexual assault are followed by a cover-up, a smear campaign and a trial by public opinion in "The Last Duel," but the backdrop isn’t Fox News, NBC, public radio or Hollywood itself — it’s 14th-Century France.

They say the past is another country where they do things differently, but this story seems awfully familiar, and that’s the point. The woman, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), has only one course of justice available: Stand by while her husband, Jean (Matt Damon), fights a duel to the death with the accused, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). God will allow only the truthful man to win, of course. As for Marguerite, she can survive a figurative mudslinging, but if found to be "lying" she’ll be literally burned alive.

Based on the true story of France’s last sanctioned duel — as detailed in Eric Jager’s nonfiction book from 2004 — "The Last Duel" marshals a dream-team cast and the Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") to put a big-screen Hollywood spin on a topical issue. If that sounds cynical or shallow, think again. For every grandly staged medieval war sequence — swords in skulls, maximum splatter — there’s a scene of taut dialogue or a moment of penetrating social insight. Credit goes as much to the reunited screenwriting team of Damon and Ben Affleck ("Good Will Hunting"), collaborating with acclaimed filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, as to Scott’s knack for putting on a massive-scale spectacle.

Broken up "Rashomon"-style into three competing versions of the truth, "The Last Duel" begins with Damon’s Jean, a hotheaded soldier with a habit of ticking off his friends. One of those, Driver’s Jacques, a self-satisfied womanizer, has become palsy-walsy with a local ruler, Pierre d'Alençon, a louche layabout played by a nearly unrecognizable Ben Affleck with a sleazy bowl haircut. All three are terrific as men who tell themselves what their egos want to hear. Without giving too much away, Jacques’ story may be the most revealing, and the most instructive.

Comer brings a steady dignity to Marguerite, who risks everything to level her accusation. What follows sometimes seems absurd: This was an era in which rape was a property crime; it also, scientifically, did not cause pregnancy. But there’s something Kubrickian about Scott’s view of human folly: What absurdities do we hold self-evident today?

If "The Last Duel" has a weakness, it’s a tendency to lead us by the nose. As we enter Marguerite’s version of events, characters begin to speak about silence, complicity and victim-shaming in ways that sound too on-message. It’s as if the future were putting words in the mouths of the past.

The duel itself is such a nail-biter that you might suspect the Hollywood fiction machine at work. Firsthand historical accounts, however, support the movie’s version of events. "The Last Duel" adds up to a near-perfect blend of topical drama and grand entertainment.

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