The Last Duel (2021) Review!!

Synopsis – King Charles VI declares that Knight Jean de Carrouges settle his dispute with his squire by challenging him to a duel.

My Take – Though director Ridley Scott is responsible for giving us some cinematic classics like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), Black Hawk Down (2001), among others, but when it comes to historical epics, you honestly never know what you’re going to get.

In the sense, while he has the Oscar-winning Gladiator (2000) and the unfairly overlooked Kingdom of Heaven (2005) on one hand, on the other he has the little seen 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), the snooze-fest Robin Hood (2010) and the misguided bomb Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), to negate one’s confidence. His latest, which takes us back to a dark chapter in French history with an unforgiving tone and a tale of gruesome, bloody combat, taken at face value, might seem unremarkable.

However, what inspired confidence and interest in the project was that it marked the re-collaboration of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as writers and co-stars, following their Oscar winning Good Will Hunting (1998), who while adapting from author Eric Jager‘s 2004 nonfiction book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, with Nicole Holofcene (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), have created a film that surprisingly looks into exploring the ugliest aspects of misogyny in the late Middle Ages and sets the stage for an emotional tale of one woman’s fight for justice in the face of honor, duty, and so-called chivalry.

Sure, given the film’s grim subject matter and overwhelming bleak atmosphere, one might expect the film to be something challenging and complicated, but by employing a Rashomon-inspired approach to the narrative, it results in a gripping and surprisingly relevant historical drama with a brutal, bone-crunching duel at its center.

It also helps that the film is cleverly written and backed by some stellar performances, exerting a powerful grip on every second of 153 minutes run time. The film delivers on the combat and atmosphere people expect, and at the same time puts forth a story which is timely and timeless, using the Middle Ages as a vehicle to explore a crime that our society still struggles with. It does this by pulling on the threads of medieval culture, with varying degrees of accuracy, in a way that is cohesive and sensitive.

Set in 14th-century France, the story is told from three perspectives that are all slightly different from each other, and follows Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a proud knight in the service of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), his young wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a squire and a former friend of Carrouges, who rose precipitously in  ranks at Jean’s expense when he became a confidant and enforcer of their lord, d’Alençon.

In 1386, Marguerite reported that, while her husband Sir Jean de Carrouges was traveling, she was raped in the home of her mother-in-law by Jacques Le Gris. A result of which an irate Jean takes the complaint all the way to King Charles (Alex Lawther) demanding retribution and that the two men face each other in the last officially sanctioned duel in France’s history. However, if Jean loses, it will be interpreted as God’s judgement, meaning Marguerite will be deemed to have lied and will be put to immediate violent death as a result.

Entitled ‘The Truth of…’ with distinctive highlights, director Ridley Scott proves once again that he is a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling, allowing the complex plot to unfold naturally over three distinct chapters. Each part showcases a classic fault of humans that just because you think something happened in a particular way doesn’t mean it actually happened that way. The differences between the three versions aren’t wildly different on the surface, but the change in perspective is constantly revealing, especially on the way each man believes he is perceived in society and allows the film to break down the virtues of those involved, calling them into question as they’re put under the spotlight.

For example, the nature of the friendly kiss between Jacques and Marguerite on the occasion of their first meeting looks different every time. When seen in Chapter One, it’s hasty. In Chapter Two, it lingers with the promise of something deeper. In Chapter Three, it’s similar to Chapter One with perhaps a tinge of reluctance.

The film charts the dissolution of Jean and Jacques’s relationship over matters of money, rank, and jealousy. Thanks to Jacques’s devotion to Pierre, he is rewarded by becoming the captain title that Jean once felt was his birthright as well as the land promised to Jean in Marguerite’s dowry. An outraged Jean repeatedly raises a stink to their lord about the fact that his former friend is getting all the things that were once rightfully his, which of course puts him in further disfavor with the sniveling Pierre. We don’t realize until Jacques’ version that Jean isn’t quite the straight-laced hero he first appears.

But everything comes to a head, however, when Marguerite accuses Jacques of raping her while Jean was away hunting down his payment for battle. Most surprisingly, Jacques doesn’t deny the encounter took place, but instead believes it was consensual, with just a customary protest of a married woman who has fallen in love with another man. The ways in which his version differs from Marguerite’s have an extra relevance in the #MeToo era and are clearly intended to provoke those conversations.

Director Scott doesn’t shy away from the brutal, horrific nature of it, either. Instead, you’re forced to face the reality of Marguerite’s full testimony, watching in horror as it all unfolds. This, too, changes from one account to the next, Marguerite recounts a harrowing moment when she fights back against Jacques’ violent demands.

Unfortunately, those expecting an action film may be disappointed by what the film offers. While the climactic battle is rousing, suspenseful, and suitably brutal, the majority of the film is more about dialogue, perception, and character interaction. There are a few perfunctory war scenes but those are presented only when necessary to advance the plot.

Performance wise, Matt Damon dutifully plays the petulant Jean as a man who thinks he’s a far better spouse and soldier than he truly is, while Adam Driver is captivating as the charming but capricious as expected. Ben Affleck too brings forth a memorable turn and adds a touch of levity when it’s needed most.

However, this is Jodie Comer’s show through and through, and she makes sure you don’t forget it. To be able to articulate three different characters, the loving wife, the flirtatious one willing to cheat, and the true medieval woman who has secret passions, all in the same film, is extraordinary. Her fight to bring Marguerite’s voice to light, despite the male voices continuously shouting over her is an absolute stand out. In supporting roles, Alex Lawther and Harriet Walter add good value. On the whole, ‘The Last Duel’ is a powerful and surprisingly relevant period drama backed by terrific performances.

 

Directed

StarringMatt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer

Rated – R

Run Time – 153 minutes

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