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THE LAST DUEL – Harry Gregson-Williams

October 22, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Last Duel is a historical epic drama for the Me Too generation, a truly harrowing look at the powerlessness, lack of agency, and mis-treatment of women throughout time, and how comparatively little has changed over the course of the past several centuries in terms of how sexual assault is viewed differently by men and women. The film is directed by Ridley Scott and is based on the 2004 book of the same name by Eric Jager; ostensibly it looks at the circumstances leading up to, and the aftermath of, one of the last legally-sanctioned trial-by-combat duels, which took place in Paris in the year 1386. Matt Damon stars as Jean de Carrouges, a medieval knight in service to King Charles VI, who is married to the daughter of a nobleman, Marguerite de Thibouville, played by Jodie Comer. When Marguerite claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), it sets circumstances in motion that result in De Carrouges and Le Gris facing off in battle – with the fate of Marguerite being decided by which of the pair lives, and which one dies. The film co-stars Ben Affleck as Le Gris’s benefactor, Count Pierre d’Alençon, as well as Harriet Walter and Alex Lawther; it was co-written by Nicole Holofcener with Damon and Affleck, for whom this is the first screenplay since their Oscar-winning effort Good Will Hunting in 1997.

The film is very interesting, structure wise, as it presents the story in a manner similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with three subtly different versions of the main story which establish motivations, deepen character relationships, and show how details can be embellished or mis-remembered. The central element – Marguerite’s rape at the hands of Le Gris – is rendered in excruciating, agonizing detail, while the subsequent trial has devastating echoes of contemporary events such as the Christine Blasey-Ford/Brett Kavanaugh supreme court sexual assault hearings. Even today, women are still questioned as to their motivations for reporting rape, their decency is challenged, and they are blamed for what men do to them. The film touches on other topics too, including classical notions of chivalry and honor, and intersperses them with several brutal action and battle sequences, including the conclusive fight between De Carrouges and Le Gris, which begins with them jousting on horseback and ends with them literally pummeling each other to death in a mire of blood and muck.

For the score, Ridley Scott turned once again to one of his most frequent collaborators, Harry Gregson-Williams, the pair having previously worked together on Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, Prometheus in 2012, and The Martian in 2017. There is actually quite a lot of similarity between The Last Duel and Kingdom of Heaven, both cinematically in terms of its setting and style, and musically, especially in the way both scores embrace the conventions of early religious church music, and in the prominent use of voices. However, where Kingdom of Heaven also contains a significant amount of quite bombastic action music, The Last Duel tends to be quieter and more restrained. Quite a lot of the film is left unscored, notably the large-scale battle sequences which are instead accompanied mostly by the clang of sword on sword, and the screams of the dying. Instead, Gregson-Williams scores the emotions, the inter-personal relationships, the time period, and the geographic setting.

Gregson-Williams was actually brought on board quite late in the post-production schedule, but quickly latched on to the idea that there should be three specific themes for the three central characters. In an interview with Jazz Tangcay for Variety, Gregson-Williams says, “I started with Marguerite’s theme which we hear throughout the movie, and Ridley really liked that. Once you have a director saying they love that texture or something, you know where to go with it. By the time audiences get to the third act, this is where we really hear her theme and her material, which is often sung.” Gregson-Williams also confirmed that he and Scott had decided early on that the battle scenes would not be covered with music, instead music was used in a supportive way. “So we weren’t distracting or detracting from the real, this the raw energy of what was going on. Music plays a huge part in the build-up, the anxiety and tension, but as the knights come together, the music stops and sound effects take over.”

The instrumental makeup of the score is interesting too, as it combines a reasonably large symphony orchestra with a number of specialty instruments pertinent to both the film’s geographic location and its historical place in time; these include wooden flutes, hammered dulcimers, a consort of viols, a cathedral organ, and a lute. For the vocals Gregson-Williams – who was an acclaimed chorister himself as a child – worked with soprano Grace Davidson, classical counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, and a vocal ensemble from London called Voces8.

The heart of the score is actually the cue that appears last on the soundtrack album, “Celui Que Je Désire,” a gorgeous choral piece performed by Davidson, which is based partly on a song by medieval composer Thibaut de Champagne called ‘Chansons d’Amour,’ and which eventually becomes the theme for Marguerite. Gregson-Williams wrote it before he had even seen the film, based purely on his emotions and his gut reactions to the story as it was told to him, and said that when he “sent the song to Ridley he reacted really well to it, so we decided to use the song’s melody as a source of thematic material that could be used throughout the score.” The piece is truly stunning; it builds from an intimate trio for pennywhistle, dulcimer, and lute, picks up Davidson’s welcoming voice singing in French, and eventually grows to encompass the entire orchestra. The melody contains the conventions of medieval church music and plainsong, but also has a faint hint of Irishness to it; the lilt in Davidson’s voice brings back some vague echoes of the theme James Horner wrote for The Devil’s Own in 1997.

The main secondary theme is for “Jean de Carrouges,” and gets its most prominent performance in the cue named for him. It’s an exciting, heroic, rising theme for strings and wordless voices underpinned with war-like percussion, medieval textures, and an unexpected synth wash that gives the whole thing an interesting tone. It clearly speaks to the way Jean sees himself – as a noble warrior, an honorable servant to God and King – but it’s also capable of adaptation and variation, especially in the later cues which accompany scenes where Jean is viewed from another’s point of view. He is at times a laughing stock, a reactionary, someone obsessed with his own standing and the respect he feels he is entitled to receive, while at other times he is a neglectful and distant husband. Gregson-Williams cleverly builds several of these nuances into later performances of the theme, especially when it is heard in combination with other character themes.

The final secondary theme is for “Jacques Le Gris,” which gets its most prominent performance in the cue named for him. Unlike the other two themes, Jacques’s theme is less ambiguous; his musical identity is dark and imposing, like the character himself, and is often carried by a dulcimer underpinned with clattering percussion. Interestingly, in addition to the theme, there is also a related ‘howl motif’ that often accompanies Jacques, a menacing drone where the animalistic sound is backed by eerie string textures and moody electronics. This idea seems to be commenting on the duality of the character; on the one hand, he is genuinely brave and bold, intelligent, handsome, charming and funny, and good company, but this all masks a darker core that is sexually wanton and feels he has the right to take whatever he wants whenever he wants. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, perhaps?

As the score develops, it is clear that the focus of almost the entire story is Marguerite. Her theme is everywhere; for example, at the beginning of “Duel Preparations” it is dreamlike and ethereal, and focused on Davidson’s faraway vocals, before it eventually gives way to a series of percussive blasts, breathy flutes, and electronic tones that remind me of some of the more abstract parts of Braveheart. This sense of dread and anticipation then builds to a dramatic conclusion. Later, in “Marguerite de Carrouges,” her theme is performed with gentle, intimate mysticism, in which the melody is paired with glittering electronic textures and light metallic percussion behind the voices. It eventually joins with Jean’s theme in the second half of the cue, and becomes expansive and bold, a reflection of the initial promise she has in her marriage and the faith she has in her husband.

In “Managing the Estate” Marguerite’s theme becomes much more rooted in the sound of the medieval ensemble, and is often accompanied by imposing organs and turbulent tapped percussion. This variation, as well as the similar variation in the subsequent “Left Alone,” are interesting as they are clearly intended to portray Marguerite as a capable, independent woman; she runs the castle while Jean is off at war with much more expertise than her husband does, much to the huffy irritation of her mother in law Nicole de Buchard, and this music speaks to that determination well.

Marguerite’s theme plays in contrast to Jean’s theme in two specific cues. “Returning Home” sees them arranged as what can only be described as ‘medieval party music,’ wherein both themes are carried by ancient woodwinds, light prancing strings, and gruff chanted voices, performing in an upbeat and celebratory manner. Then, in “I Offer You a Name,” the combination of the two themes is oddly antagonistic, and is filled with lots of plucked harps and struck dulcimers amid a range of layered ethereal voices and intense string rhythms. This is the flip-side of Marguerite and Jean’s relationship; to him, it’s transactional and all about power and status, not only over those around him, but also over her as his ‘property’. She, on the other hand, just wants to be loved. The gorgeous solo vocal rendition of Marguerite’s theme in the finale is heartbreaking.

Several mid-album cues lean very heavily into the stylistics of medieval plainsong and liturgical church music. The power of the catholic church looms heavily over every aspect of The Last Duel, both figuratively and literally. The judge and jury of Le Gris’s rape trial are clergymen whose views on female emancipation are very much rooted in the archaic laws of the church at that time; then, in an obvious literal and visual metaphor, every time one of the characters visits Paris the work-in-progress building of Notre Dame Cathedral is shown, growing larger and more imposing with each passing month. Musically, cues such as “Leaving for Scotland,” “Court of King Charles,” and “House Meeting” adopt this religioso sound, a combination of mournful voices singing in Latin, viola de gamba drones, and glassy percussion, while “Confrontation” is a wild, vivid explosion of church organs and portentous voices.

Some of this music reminds me very much of a more palatable, less experimental variation on the music Daniel Hart wrote for The Green Knight earlier this year, and considering how much I loved that music, that’s a very good thing indeed. This part of the score also includes excerpts from other pre-existing medieval musical works, including “Le Chanson de Roland” and “Pucelete Je Languis Domino,” which blend perfectly with Gregson-Williams’s medieval stylings and period specificity, although it’s not clear exactly which cues they feature in.

Finally, the music for Jacques Le Gris looms over the rest of the score, waiting to act and turn everyone’s lives upside down. Both “The Wolves” and “I’ve Never Seen You Like This” are unnerving, a combination of layered women’s voices and medieval instruments that somehow convey a sense of menace combined with religious piety. There are hints of Jacques’s theme running through both these cues, suggesting that they an exploration of a motif for the relationship between Jacques and Ben Affleck’s character Count Pierre, whose lasciviousness and carnality has a terrible influence on Jacques’s character. In the former, the funereal snare drum riffs bring to mind an imminent execution, while in the latter the women’s voices evolve into a calm, pretty piece for guitar and recorder that, for a moment, genuinely suggest that Jacques may have real feelings for Marguerite. Later, in “Confession,” high church music combines with more hints of Jacques’s theme as he confesses his crimes to his priest; the howling motif re-appears, disturbing and abstract, as the priest essentially says ‘boys will be boys’ and victim-blames Marguerite to her rapist’s face.

“Forgive Me for Intruding” and “Tell No One” are the cues which immediately proceed and follow the rape itself. Thankfully, the actual rape scene is not scored, but the sense of dread Marguerite feels beforehand, and the utter horror of what she experiences afterwards, are conveyed appropriately by Gregson-Williams. The former features the Jacques howl motif, menacing and intimidating, as well as a series of increasingly disturbing electronic textures. The latter is scored mostly with voices and drones, and help the audience empathize with the gut-wrenching horror that Marguerite has just endured. You could delve deeply into the subtext here, and get into conversations about how Gregson-Williams’s use of liturgical plainsong is commenting on church patriarchy, how religious leaders consistently blamed women for being sexual victims rather than punishing the men responsible, and how Scott and the screenwriters are paralleling that with what still happens today, but that’s a conversation for another place.

The finale of the score – and the film – begins with “The Duel” itself, which opens with a series of edgy string quivers, harpsichord tinkles, and haunting electronic textures, which give the whole thing a sense of desperate anticipation. Deconstructed statements of both Jean’s theme and Jacques’s theme run through the piece, while a harpsichord variation on Marguerite’s theme reminds us whose life is at stake. The drama increases through the inclusion of intense percussion, male voices, and electronic rhythms, and the whole thing concludes with the wolf howl motif, growing quieter and quieter. “The Aftermath” is filled with relief, beauty, and angelic elegance, but is also painted with darkness; a slow, reverential version of Marguerite’s theme for the full orchestra and choir brings the score to a dramatic conclusion.

This is the second excellent medieval score in 2021 but, unlike The Green Knight, the comparative straightforwardness of The Last Duel will likely make it much more palatable to mainstream audiences than Daniel Hart’s offbeat experimental effort. It is perhaps best described as a more serious take on Kingdom of Heaven, and people who admired the dramatic non-action parts of that score will have a positive experience with this one. The three main themes are excellent, especially Marguerite’s theme and its song version in “Celui Que Je Désire,” and the intellectual application of them all to convey the challenging narrative of the film is admirable. Combine this with some expertly-researched medieval music and authentic period instruments, and you have a score which succeeds on all fronts; for me, it’s probably the most impressive straight dramatic score Harry Gregson-Williams has written since The Martian.

Buy the Last Duel soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Duel Preparations (3:36)
  • Leaving for Scotland (2:42)
  • Marguerite de Carrouges (2:18)
  • Returning Home (1:14)
  • Jean de Carrouges (1:18)
  • Managing the Estate (2:23)
  • Court of King Charles (0:56)
  • The Wolves (2:33)
  • Confrontation (0:37)
  • Jacques Le Gris (1:13)
  • I’ve Never Seen You Like This (1:12)
  • Confession (2:16)
  • I Offer You a Name (3:28)
  • House Meeting (0:58)
  • Chapter 3 (1:11)
  • Left Alone (1:17)
  • Forgive Me for Intruding (1:27)
  • Tell No One (2:28)
  • The Duel (5:12)
  • The Aftermath (3:08)
  • Celui Que Je Désire (performed by Grace Davidson) (3:49)

Running Time: 45 minutes 24 seconds

Hollywood Records (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Orchestrations by Alistair King and Stephen Barton. Additional music by Ho Ling Tang. Featured musical soloists Richard Harvey, William Skeen, Chris Bluth, Pedro Eustache and George Doering. Special vocal performances by Grace Davidson and Iestyn Davies. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel, Scott Michael Smith and Alan Meyerson. Edited by Tony Lewis and Allegra De Souza. Album produced by Harry Gregson-Williams.

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