The Last Duel, 2021.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Starring Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther, Zoé Bruneau, Ian Pirie, William Houston, Sam Hazeldine, Brian F. Mulvey, Caoimhe O’Malley, Serena Kennedy, and Julian Firth.
King Charles VI declares that Knight Jean de Carrouges settle his dispute with his squire by challenging him to a duel.
Director Ridley Scott opens The Last Duel with a shot of two men preparing to joust. As a woman looks on with a vested interest, it’s reasonable to assume that, given the setting of medieval France 1386, one of the men is fighting for her and defending her honor. Ridley Scott also directed Best Picture victor Gladiator, after all.
The Last Duel is the anti-Gladiator.
Scripted by co-stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (wisely bringing into the fold Nicole Holofcener, presumably to fine-tune the sensitive material and provide a more authentic touch to the female experience of such unforgivingly regressive times that, sadly, have yet to improve fully), The Last Duel is broken up into three separate chapters. Each of them functions as a perspective for one of the major players in this narrative of war, loyalty, betrayal, romance, and serious accusations that can only be resolved with trial by combat (the backward thinking is that God will only allow the truthful one to emerge victoriously).
The first version of events comes from Knight Jean de Carrouges (a bearded, grizzled, nastily scarred, distant, and temperamental Matt Damon, who is also not French, but such things are easy enough to roll with here considering the acting chops on display). Running roughshod through the basic timeline, it establishes that Jean de Carrouges is losing favor with Count Pierre d’Alençon (a cocky and hedonistic eccentric blonde Ben Affleck), has a falling out with a longtime companion and trusted squire Jacques LeGris (a charming but scummy Adam Driver), and misses out on land promised to him when remarrying (his previous family was lost to the plague) Marguerite de Carrouges (brilliantly played by Jodie Comer as a woman aware of her duties during the place and time, but also knowledgeable, artful, and determined to stand up against injustice even when those close to her disagree with her choices and feel that she should be happy with what she does have). One day when returning to the village they run, Marguerite breaks down and speaks up that she has been raped, leading Jean to go above the Count to King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) to request a duel, outdated concept it may be even for these times.
Following that, The Last Duel restarts from the accused’s perspective with mostly all-new scenes that expand on what came before, showing that Jean may have been temperamental and incorrect with some of his feelings. Of course, it also concludes with the rape. There’s a case to be made that these male perspectives could have been lumped together not only to improve the flow and keep the drama escalating but because there’s only one perspective that really matters here. That would be the truth, according to Marguerite de Carrouges, with extra emphasis on the “truth” caption announcing the arrival of chapter 3. It’s also one way of saying that, while Ridley Scott is entirely in his element here when it comes to period piece re-creations, violent skirmishes, and getting a sweeping score from Harry Gregson-Williams, The Last Duel can occasionally feel slow until it’s ready to let Jodie Comer carry the story on her back, trying her damnedest to talk some sense into hotheaded men and victim shaming women. It’s not exactly a complex story, either, so some aspects of those first two chapters simply don’t need repeating.
The accused is not the only character to read into differently as Marguerite’s story unfolds. As for Jean, it becomes clear that he is no noble hero defending the supposed love of his life, instead capitalizing on the situation to put an end to a personal dispute. Even Marguerite realizes Jean is not fighting back against the horrific assault committed against her as a human, but doing battle as if he is defending a piece of property that was abused as a means to slight him. It’s as reductive as the onslaught of gross questions Marguerite is lobbied on trial, where a group of men ponders if the sex was consensual because she is suddenly pregnant with the belief at the time being such a thing can only happen if a woman experiences pleasure during the act.
Inspiringly, Marguerite continuously fights for justice. However, one last reductive caveat somehow puts an uglier spin on the impending titular duel. As to be expected, that duel itself is brutal, pulling no punches, satisfying on visceral thrills alone. However, the brilliant twist to The Last Duel is that while the crowd is cheering on the barbarism when usually all of us would too, we are watching on in horror, praying and hoping that the grimmest outcome does not come to fruition. You will want Matt Damon to win the last duel, but his character is no fucking hero.
Meanwhile, Jodie Comer, despite a hopeless spectating victim, portrays a fully fleshed out and layered character, proving that the other crime here is that she is not the entire focus of The Last Duel. Nevertheless, this is still riveting filmmaking, with four commandingly distinct central performances and a savagely tense final battle. Maybe, hopefully, happiness is on the other side.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com