Ever since his feature film directing debut in 1977, Ridley Scott has been a master of crafting the epic movie no matter the genre, from the Crusades-set Kingdom of Heaven and the Oscar-winning Gladiator set in ancient Rome to the sci-fi dystopia Blade Runner and several films in the Alien franchise. He succeeds once again in the epic genre with his latest film, The Last Duel, which tells a grand and timely yet intimate and secular tale based on actual events with an innovative story structure that’s not without its flaws, but they’re more than made up for by strong performances from its cast, authentic set and costume design, an ominous tone and thrilling action sequences.
Taking place over a fifteen-year span in 14th-century France, The Last Duel tells the story of what led to the final sanctioned duel in the kingdom’s history from three different perspectives, starting with knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), then his best friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), followed by Jean’s wife, Lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Jean and Jacques are squires-in-arms that swear loyalty to Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) during the Hundred Years War. Jean is poised to receive a position of leadership within the count’s army as well as a plot of land within Marguerite’s dowry.
However, Jacques’s military skills and mutual interests impress the Count enough to reward him with the captaincy and a position as his adviser, which he seemingly uses to keep the land Jean wants in his possession, much to his friend’s resentment. Jacques’ power eventually drives him to the horrific atrocity of raping Lady Marguerite, who publicly accuses him of the act after Jean returns from an expedition in Scotland. Jacques profusely denies her declaration, but rather than continue the dispute in a jury trial, he challenges Jean to defend his wife’s honor by fighting him in a trial by combat to the death for all to witness, which Jean is quick to accept despite putting his wife’s life at stake, should he lose the battle.
The greatest strength of The Last Duel is in its direction. Like Kingdom of Heaven before it, Ridley Scott makes 14th-century Europe look and sound as grimy and ominous as it should thanks to the giant structures of its castles, their interior walls of stone being lit by candle, and the portentous droning of the choral vocalizing from its musical score. There’s also more of an intimate feel with this epic in the sense that it spends more time on private moments between its characters, saving its battle sequences to come in sudden, brutal spurts.
The ensemble cast is strong as well, with Comer in particular stealing the show as Marguerite in what is an awards-caliber performance. As Lady Marguerite, she commands all her screen time, conveying her inner suffering as a result of her trauma with a powerful reserve, while her majestic empathy comes through with the warmth she shows in conversations with locals who ask for financial assistance. Meanwhile, Driver and Damon are strong in their roles as well, with the former masking Jacques’ guilt and intentions with natural chivalry, while violent intensity from the latter comes through when Jean’s desperation for personal glory causes him to lose his temper. Affleck also chews scenery when he can, hurling commands for Jacques to join him in carnal pleasures with reckless abandon.
The Last Duel also feels close to Shakespearean in tone thanks to its dialogue, as each actor delivers their lines in an eloquent and medieval cadence that’s almost melodramatic but executed with enough restraint that the stakes always feel high and the horror of Jacques Le Gris’ crime feels real. That said, writers Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener took an inventive approach to writing the film’s script: each of the three main character’s points of view would be divided into a three-chapter structure, with one for each writer. According to Damon, this was done because “it’s a story about perspective.” By the end of the film, it’s evident that everyone involved wanted to tell a complete and honest story, but it is successful only in some aspects and a hindrance in others.
For instance, the Rashomon-esque structure does a mostly excellent job in pulling back all the layers of most of its characters until viewers see them as their true selves. For instance, from Jean’s viewpoint, he is seen as a noble knight in shining armor that does everything in the name of honor, while his bitterness over losing everything comes through in Jacques’ perspective, culminating when we see him from Marguerite’s point of view. It is through her eyes we learn Jean sees her as less his wife and more as the carrier of his child, first and foremost. More examples of this stellar character development include reveals of Jacques’ monstrous entitlement and Pierre’s animated hedonism.
However, what’s unfortunate is that Lady Marguerite isn’t given the same amount of depth. In fact, she isn’t revealed to be the film’s protagonist until the halfway point of its 153-minute runtime, leaving little time to add much agency to her as a character other than the surface level tropes of the benevolent queen and the sexual assault survivor. What’s also worth noting is that The Last Duel doesn’t challenge the spiritual ideas from the time period. It’s frequently said by court officials that whether Marguerite’s accusation is truthful or not belongs in God’s will, but there’s not a moment where the Lady ruminates over the outrageousness of this herself, leaving nothing of substance for audiences to chew on.
Despite these flaws, there is still a lot to be captivated by in Scott’s latest epic. Audiences will gawk at the massive castles which have been gloriously replicated, be enthralled by the stellar acting from its ensemble cast, stay on the edge of their seats for the sparse but intense battle sequences, and want to see justice prevail by the film’s gruesome but suspenseful climax. The film may clock in at 153 minutes, but it’s paced so well, the story flies by to the point where one never feels the length. With this year’s awards season just around the corner, the contenders are slowly but surely making their way out of the woodwork, and The Last Duel is guaranteed to be one of the first.