THE LAST DUEL is directed by Ridley Scott. It stars Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Jodie Comer. It is based on THE LAST DUEL: A TRUE STORY OF TRIAL BY COMBAT IN MEDIEVAL FRANCE, a book by Eric Jager.
In medieval France, knights Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris cross paths several times, often as allies on the battlefield, and often as men quarreling over the changing times across the European landscape, including the arrival of Count Pierre, who drives a further wedge between the men. When Marguerite, Jean’s wife, claims that Jacques has raped her, the couple takes their case to the highest courts of France, culminating in a duel between the two men that will leave one man blessed with honor and the respect of his countrymen, and the other dead.
Ridley Scott is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER rank among the greatest science fiction films ever made. GLADIATOR was a sword-and-sandal epic for the modern age that rivaled and even exceeded many of the ones of old. He’s even had plenty of recent impactful films, including THE MARTIAN and ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. In fact, his next film. HOUSE OF GUCCI, releases just over a month after this one. To say he’s a man who keeps busy would be a gross understatement.
But, back to the task at hand. How does THE LAST DUEL measure up? Despite an overlong running time and some narrative choices I’m not sure were necessarily the best for the material at hand, it’s an absolutely gorgeous looking medieval epic. The casting is superb, and while I can’t say for sure if it’s a movie I’ll ever watch again, I’m glad I had the chance to see it. Whether mainstream audiences will feel the same way has yet to be determined.
There have been many movies set in medieval times before, but none of them have ever looked as good as THE LAST DUEL, which captures the grit and grime as well as the majesty and splendor of this era, with magnificent sets and costumes, not to mention scenery and tones that put the viewer right in the heart of the castles and battlefields alike. The moments of action and violence only make up a small amount of the picture, but when they come, they come on full force, with gore and blood befitting an R-rated medieval film. The titular duel between the two main characters, brief as it may be compared to the rest of the film, is no exception to this.
The casting of THE LAST DUEL works superbly. It’s good to see Adam Driver hasn’t run out of steam since his starring role in the STAR WARS sequels we got a few years back, going from playing a Knight of Ren to a medieval knight surprisingly well. Enchanted by the beauty of Comer’s Marguerite and in a love-hate relationship of sorts with a fellow knight, he brings this character a surprising amount of depth and charisma, so it’s never a simple “he raped her” story. This is rounded out by the casting of Damon as he man who he so frequently encounters, only to find himself locked in a battle to the death as the two must defend their honor. The two leads are cast well in this film, and the scenes they spend together, whether as friends on the battlefield or as bitter rivals, truly make the film what it is.
But the other cast members aren’t to be overlooked. For me, true standouts in the film include Ben Affleck as the lustful and eccentric Count Pierre, and Jodie Comer as Marguerite. Affleck (who has worked with Damon on many an occasion) steals the show as a man cemented in his position who has no apologies for his vices, making for some of the film’s funnier moments; it’s a shame he’s so underused in the latter half of the movie. Comer’s Marguerite is largely representative of the women of centuries past who were largely subservient and lacked the rights of men of the day, but proves herself a fairly strong woman nonetheless, standing up for what’s right; the film paints this gap between men and women surprisingly well. The secondary and tertiary cast are strong as well, and going through and describing every strong performance in the film would be a daunting task unto itself and enough content to fill an entire article.
Scott also challenges audience by presenting the film in a nontraditional narrative structure broken into three segments showing us the story from the perspectives of Damon, Driver, and Comer’s characters. This style of storytelling is nothing new, reminiscent of movies like RASHOMON, RUN LOLA RUN, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, and many a Quentin Tarantino film. While I think this makes for an interesting viewing experience, with each segment revealing more of the story, perspectives, and motivation, I can’t help but wonder if the film would’ve worked better from one neutral perspective as a basic chronological narrative. The two-and-a-half hour running time is excessive, and this streamlining could’ve easily removed a good 20-30 minutes of screen time without any major loss to the narrative. Still, I found myself enthralled by the story and was never bored despite this.
THE LAST DUEL is a gorgeous looking epic with some fantastic casting, set design, scenery, and action and drama alike, even if its running time is excessive and its narrative choices, intriguing as they may be, are questionable at times. That said, I enjoyed the film and am glad to have seen it, even if I’m not sure it’s something I’ll watch again. Definitely recommended for the curious, just know what you’re getting going in.