Historical epics and director Ridley Scott are synonymous with one another – one cannot be made without the other. And though Scott has had a very diverse career, he always returns to the “epic” style of telling a story that Hollywood of old used to cater to. In looking at his filmography, Ridley Scott’s most popular (and his best) historical epic is Gladiator – are you not entertained? And on the other side of the epic coin is a film like Exodus: Gods and Kings (a biblical disaster snooze-fest that never lived up to the promise of its scope and scale). That said, Scott is still a trustworthy director to tackle a historical story and give it a vision that no one else can. That much is true with The Last Duel.
The Last Duel, the first of Ridley Scott’s two films (House of Gucci, the clear Oscar bait film being released within a month’s time) leans more on the Gladiator side of the scale when it comes to a historical epic. Written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon & Nicole Holofcener, the story is based on The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by author Eric Jager. Told in an unconventional form, The Last Duel follows friends and squires Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) (with an awful looking mullet haircut) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) in a duel over the truth about a rape accusation made against Jacques by Jean’s wife Marguerite Carrouges (Jodie Comer) (who’s having herself a great year).
Broken up into 3 chapters that show similar recounting of events that unfold with minor details changed based on the character that’s telling the story, The Last Duel can feel a bit repetitive, slowly paced and drawn out. Coming in at 153 minutes, watching Jacques, Jean, and Marguerite recount the same story 3 times becomes tedious though a risk that somewhat pays off because Marguerite’s version doesn’t follow the same structure to her side of the story, labeled as the “truth”.
Chapter one shows Sir Jean’s version of the story in which, he is the noble hero, standing up for his wife against her attacker. Chapter two shows Jacques point of view in which he and Marguerite share a forbidden love in which Marguerite commits adultery willingly. And Chapter three, Marguerite’s truth (highlighted longer than the rest of the sentence) shows the risk of a rape accusation by a woman given the times and how both men differ from how they see themselves. Both chapter two and three show the unspeakable act while Marguerite’s version has her fighting off Jacques more forcefully than his version.
If #metoo existed in Medieval France, this film would represent the movement. Misogyny, especially systematic misogyny is mostly teased while not fully being explored to the best of its potential, weighted down by its plot structure and slow-burn pace. For Marguerite, accusing someone of rape is a risk that most women wouldn’t dare mention out loud in this era. But she has a bravery to her that cannot be silenced. It represents a significant moment in history for women and it absolutely plays that way. And with that comes the male perspective and how prideful Jean is. Yes, he’s defending his wife by challenging Jean to a duel – in fact, the duel is the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history. Jean is also defending his reputation though he may not be the most popular according to Jacques and Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck).
Anchored by its performances by the three leads, Matt, Ben & Nicole’s script is more intimate with the scale and scope taking a back seat. Add Scott’s direction to give The Last Duel a personal touch. Comer’s performance is Oscar worthy – giving some competition to Jessica Chastain.
Within the confines of its story, The Last Duel is a slow burn that pays off to a degree with the final battle culminating the recounted three stories. There aren’t two sides to a given story – there’s three, what Jean and Jacques claim and then the actual truth. Why would Marguerite risk life and being burned alive if what she claimed wasn’t true, Even other women who have experienced what Marguerite has but they don’t have the strength to stand up to the law of man and the systematic misogyny put in place to keep men at the top.
All three sides of the same story lead into the climactic conclusion. As he did with Gladiator, the trial by combat is the perfect explosion of ferocity, rage, pride, greed, survival and strength. Adam and Matt bring the brutality to their duel as literally the combat could go either way. By that point, not knowing how the events played out in history, the fate of Marguerite is up in the air. Of course, historical accuracy may not be the priority to the actual events but for the story at hand, Scott displays his strength in crafting a powerhouse of a historically significant moment. Its bloody, brilliantly acted, intimate within the scope of France’s momentous time in history.
The decision to tell the story in 3 chapters rather than in a linear matter kills any momentum that builds from one point-of-view to the next. Starting the story completely over from scratch keeps the film from landing the knockout blow, that’s the biggest concern with the script along with an overlong runtime that could have kept the story more tightly wound than letting it unravel.
Matt and Ben when together can tell such a visceral story that stays within the reality of the situation rather the elegance of the power of the men portrayed. Given the genre, Ridley Scott keeps the film grounded, focusing on the characters and their relationships and the action while giving both equal importance. Adam, Ben, Matt, and Jodie all have great interchangeable chemistry together with Comer commanding the spotlight with a magnetic performance.
what one woman can accomplish simply by speaking up against a system trying so hard to keep those silent is nothing short of inspiring. While others may fear the consequences of having their voices heard, marguerite showed true strength and bravery in her quest.
The Last Duel feels like a historical epic (even though the scale isn’t as grand, it certainly has all the necessary ingredients. Politically motivated characters, though not explicitly motivated, authentic looking set and costume design, a score that captures the period and cinematography to show off the brutality.
I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing Affleck with blond hair and matching goatee. Same with Damon’s business in the front, party in the back mullet.
Written By: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck & Nicole Holofcener
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Music By: Harry Gregson-Williams
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
Release Date: October 15, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 32 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
My Score: 4 out of 5
Based On: The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager