Historical Dramas Are in Good Hands
Three recent films take the art seriously and transport viewers to the Middle Ages
Everyone complains about the state of cinema today. A lot of that has to do with the Disneyfication of everything into what critics would call big-budget but cheap garbage, the elevation of vapid thrills over substance and an excess of virtue signaling over storytelling. We shouldn’t, however, fail to notice the solid films out there. Three recent examples in medieval historical drama are Outlaw King (2018), The King (2019) and The Last Duel (2021).
Outlaw King (ca. 1307)
First in historical order is Outlaw King. You know Braveheart (1995), the blockbuster starring Mel Gibson as William Wallace, the Scottish warrior who fought for independence against the English. After his death, the Scots continued their fight under the leadership of Robert the Bruce, the titular outlaw king played by Chris Pine. After Prince Edward takes prisoner Robert’s wife Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), the newly crowned King of Scots is a man locked in a grueling war while unsure of his beloved’s fate. Freedom, as ever, must come at a price.
As director David Mackenzie illustrates this point, he aims to impress. The opening sequence, a single nine-minute take, gives the film momentum, introduces backstory, defines characters and sets up conflicts. Soon after, Robert is chafing at his vassalship to King Edward I, wooing his new wife, and igniting rebellion. In the end, everything comes to blood at Loudoun Hill. As the credits roll, history resumes and Robert’s descendant three centuries later unifies the Scottish and English crowns as King James I.
Despite the powerful historical narrative, the film is better at character and relationships. Pine, primarily known for being goofily handsome, is here grim, graying and paunchy. Pugh, who proved her talent as the grieving and terrified Dani in Midsommar (2019), again captivates. Early in Outlaw King, she’s a less than enthusiastic bride and has a mind and a will of her own. Their relationship is the heart of the film. Too bad then that Pugh’s character fades into the background, leaving her little more than a damsel in distress.
The Last Duel (ca. 1386)
A few years later and across the channel, Ridley Scott is behind the camera for The Last Duel. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are friends until their fortunes diverge under Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). Conflict arises when Carrouges’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) claims Le Gris raped her. We see these events from each of the three character’s point of view. The differing perspectives reveal how they see themselves and each other and, as crucially, what they fail to see about themselves and each other. The Last Duel is ambitious, an art film bridging 14th-Century social realities and 21st-century Me Too.
Only time will tell if The Last Duel is one for the ages. The film is at its best when showing the characters at their most virtuous and despicable, even-handedly depicting the mores of the time and leaving ethical judgments to viewers. It falters when you realize Marguerite is receiving special treatment. Instead of a subtly defined character, she’s a generic saint and victim whom we’re to revere and pity. As her perspective extends into the judicial duel and epilogue, Marguerite becomes the dominant note. Accordingly, the film becomes moralistic and less of an enigma.
Yet screenwriters Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon deserve credit. They took Eric Jager’s 2004 nonfiction book of the same name and turned it into compelling cinema. People love to hate Affleck and Damon, but ever since they wrote and starred in Good Will Hunting (1997), they’ve repeatedly proven their talents. Both are bold here, not only in storytelling, but also in stepping into unflattering roles they could be sure would draw insults for everything from their accents to mansplaining Me Too. Together with Holofcener, however, they’ve delivered a remarkable reflection on that movement.
The King (ca. 1415)
Early in the next century, the Hundred Years’ War is still underway in The King. When King Henry IV dies, his son Hal (Timothée Chalamet) succeeds him and finds himself in conflict with France. By his side is Chief Justice Sir William Gascoigne. Events lead to the Battle of Agincourt and marriage to Catherine of Valois. If this sounds familiar, that’s not just because it’s history. It’s also Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599). If history must suffer the silver screen’s depredations — these types of films are rife with inaccuracies — then highlights of the silver screen like Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V in 1944 and Kenneth Brannagh’s in 1989 must undergo 21st-century grimdark as in The King.
New takes on classic material can be outstanding. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015), starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, is an example. Sean Harris, who played Macduff in that film, is superb in The King as Gascoigne, incarnating more than acting and thereby upstaging the lead actor. Chalamet, as in A Rainy Day in New York (2019) and Dune (2021), still fails to offer more than his appearance: boyish and spindly with curls. The rest of the cast members are similarly unremarkable, save one.
That’s Joel Edgerton. Ever since a couple brief appearances in the Star Wars prequels, he’s landed some hefty roles: Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (2013), Ramsses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) and John Connolly in Black Mass (2015). Here, he shares a writing credit with director David Michôd and has taken the role of Hal’s drinking buddy Falstaff. He’s put on weight and a beard and become a bear of a man, but a quiet one. His Falstaff is generally retiring and wise until battle demands other virtues. If this was a passion project for Edgerton, it shows in his dedication.
David Mackenzie, Ridley Scott, David Michôd… Robert Eggers is another director who has been taking his art seriously and asking audiences to do the same. His historical epic The Northman (2022), set in the Viking Age and thus hundreds of years before the films above, won a positive response from critics and audiences. It’s just another example of why the first-rate historical epic isn’t dead. It just isn’t coming from Disney.
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