Photo by Dominique Charriau

Female strength on film

Is Sir Ridley Scott a surprising feminist?

Artillery Row

Most people, with their 84th birthdays approaching next month, might be forgiven for wanting to take their lives slightly easier. In the case of the film director Sir Ridley Scott, the idea of slowing down seems impossible. His latest film his 26th is released this weekend in both Britain and America. Entitled The Last Duel, it stars Matt Damon, Jodie Comer and Adam Driver, and is a typically accomplished slice of epic medieval filmmaking, revolving around the last sanctioned duel in France between two knights following an accusation of rape made by one of their wives. 

Scott has been his usual energetic self in promoting the film, but he may be forgiven for sighing wearily, in the knowledge that he will be on the road again in a month’s time to publicise his next picture, the Lady Gaga-starring House of Gucci, a 90s-set crime drama about the Gucci dynasty. The next time your grandfather (or father) complains about their lives being too busy in their eighties, ask them “are you Ridley Scott?” If the answer is “no”, then tell them to pipe down. 

It remains to be seen whether The Last Duel and House of Gucci are commercial successes or not, but neither will seriously affect Scott’s reputation, even if they are both cataclysmic flops: a potential outcome at a time when the literate older filmgoers who traditionally flock to his pictures are considerably less gung-ho about returning to cinemas than their younger peers. Yet Scott, more than nearly any other filmmaker alive, makes films that demand to be seen at the cinema, on a huge screen. From Blade Runner and Gladiator to American Gangster and Alien, Scott is a peerless creator of worlds, which have encompassed anything from 1300 BC Egypt to fantastical futuristic settings. His films are beautiful to look at, feature iconic central performances, are not known for their thigh-slapping humorous elements and have established him as one of the greatest directors of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Its rape-revenge narrative is told from a firmly feminist perspective

He is too eclectic a talent to be pigeonholed into one category, but at first glance, it might seem that he is one of cinema’s great chroniclers of machismo. In a series of collaborations with Russell Crowe, then at the peak of his stardom and ferocity, Scott elicited a series of towering and charismatic performances from his star, to Oscar-winning effect in Gladiator and to critical acclaim in the likes of American Gangster and Body of Lies. (Their ill-advised attempt to make a light romantic comedy in the form of the 2006 Peter Mayle adaptation A Good Year is a fascinating example of enormous but unsuited talent brought to fluffy material that cannot support it.) Many of his films, from Exodus: Gods and Kings and Black Hawk Down, to Kingdom of Heaven and his debut, The Duellists, have explored the nature of male aggression in and around wartime, usually with toxic consequences.  

This, then, is what one might expect from The Last Duel, a suitably clanky and chain mail-y account of bloody violence captured through Scott’s usual blue-grey tinted filters. Yet the surprise is that its rape-revenge narrative is told from a firmly feminist perspective, thanks to its central character. Jodie Comer’s noblewoman Marguerite acts as the wronged protagonist, even as her storyline is told from three different viewpoints. It has been called a #MeToo film in its pitiless account of misogyny, but takes considerable artistic risks, not least for its daring inclusion of an antagonist’s perspective that suggests that Marguerite was a willing participant in her own defilement only for the subsequent narrative to refute this utterly and angrily.

This may seem a surprising shift for Scott, given his apparent focus on male actors and characters. In fact, throughout his career, he has been one of the most consistently feminist filmmakers in cinema, creating strong roles for women and doing so without an ounce of condescension. It was his first Alien film that introduced Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who shifted over the course of the narrative from an unexceptional member of the spaceship’s crew to the determined survivor, and subsequent icon. In Thelma and Louise, one of the great feminist films of the past half-century, Scott gave Geena Davis’s Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s Louise the agency and impact that they deserved, aided by Callie Khouri’s Oscar-winning script. And even his 1997 Demi Moore vehicle GI Jane a beautifully filmed misfire if ever there was one contains the treasurable moment of Moore beating up a man and hissing, “Suck my dick!” to him. From such acorns arise a thousand media studies theses. 

He’s a director uninterested in telling rote love stories

Over and over again, Scott’s cinema offers meatier and richer roles for women than that of his peers, whether it’s Eileen Atkins’s wry Eleanor of Aquitaine in Robin Hood, Alison Lohman’s mysterious teenager in Matchstick Men or Daryl Hannah’s tough-as-nails replicant Pris in Blade Runner, all too determined not to go gently into that good night without putting up a hell of a fight first. He’s a director uninterested in telling rote love stories with simpering and adoring women cowering on the sidelines, but instead someone who shows a fascination with, and deep respect for, female strength.

This has its roots in his upbringing, particularly his 4’11 mother Elizabeth, who he has described as someone who he virtually saluted every morning. As he said in a 2016 interview, “My mum brought three boys up: my dad was in the army and so he was frequently away. During the war and post-war, we tended to travel following him around so my mum was the boss. She laid down the law and the law was God. We just said, ‘Yup, okay’ we didn’t argue. I think that’s where the respect has come from, because she was tough.” 

We can expect to see another iteration of this, next month in Lady Gaga’s performance as the murderous Patrizia Reggiani in House of Gucci, and then again next year, when Scott directs his long-awaited Napoleon film Kitbag, reuniting him with both his Gladiator actor Joaquin Phoenix, as Bonaparte, and Comer, as Josephine. Scott has already suggested that the film will explore the all-consuming obsession that Napoleon felt for his wife. Surely, in its depiction of yet another strong woman who dominated the men around her, its director is creating yet another quasi-autobiographical picture. Knowing his deep, personal and lifelong commitment to the subject, chances are it’ll be another masterpiece, as well.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover