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Ridley Scott's 'The Last Duel' Feels Like a Movie From an Earlier Time

Two knights greet each other
[L-R] Adam Driver as JACQUES LE GRIS, Matt Damon as CARROUGES in THE LAST DUEL

The Last Duel takes a cue from Kurosawa's Rashomon and tells a brutal story of betrayal and vengeance from three different perspectives. Set in a financially and morally corrupt culture of 14th century France, each narrative introduces new layers to consider. As the story unspools, viewers see conflicting versions of the same story, forcing us to wrestle with concepts like honor, power, chivalry, and gender. Directed by Ridley Scott, with screenplay co-written by Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, The Last Duel impels the audience to operate as a courtroom jury, deciding who is telling the truth.

Based on the similarly titled history book by Eric Jager, The Last Duel covers the documented events and testimonies that lead up to the last officially recognized judicial duel fought in France in 1386. A Norman knight, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) returned home after an absence. Upon his arrival home, his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Carrouges' friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping her. Le Gris denies the charges. With no eyewitnesses to verify either account, the courts decide to leave the question of guilt or innocence to God. Carrouges and Le Gris will fight a duel to the death. A just God will make sure the person who is telling the truth will come out victorious. The loser will be dead, of course. And lest you think Carrouges fights for his wife's honor, remember that, at this time, rape was not a crime against a woman, but a crime against her husband. As part of her husband's property and estate, if Le Gris raped Marguerite, it's an assault on Carrouges. Yet if her case is proven false, Marguerite will be tortured before being burned for lying. The world isn't kind to anyone, but especially to women.

Ben Affleck as PIERRE D'ALENCON in THE LAST DUEL

Watching The Last Duel feels like a portal to an earlier time. In a time when independent studios are on the rise, Ridley's Scott's big box production scale reminds me of the pictures from the 1990s or early 2000s. Scott, of course, has a track record of directing action-packed period dramas, like Gladiator, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Kingdom of Heaven. Mel Gibson's Braveheart feels like a close cousin, as well. In all of these pictures, we have elaborate costumes, elaborate battle scenes, and richly detailed worlds that transport us to an earlier time and place. For that alone, seeing a film of this scale on the big screen felt like time well spent for this critic. Scott chooses to include historical details like the bartering conversation that occurs between Carrouges and Marguerite's father, Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker) and the specific way Carrouges must present himself at court to claim his pay. And then, of course, there's the legal hoops both men go through to gain allies and attempt to outmaneuver one another before the big courtroom scene. Viewers receive an in-depth look at the cultural context for these events.

The inner motivations of each of the three main characters unveils itself through their view of "the truth." History belongs to the eye of the beholder and the script written by Holofcener, Affleck, and Damon does an excellent job showing how social class, gender, and societal expectations all inform each character's lens. Each of them wants to make a mark. Matt Damon as Carrouges believes in duty, honor, and preserving the family name. As a knight, he comes from honorable stock and feels the pressure of keeping that tradition alive. Personality-wise, he comes across like a wet sock. In his eyes, he's the man that steps up when everyone else falters back. He lacks cunning in social situations and prefers a full steam ahead approach to influencing others. Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris acts as a foil to Carrouges. Born to a less noble father, he relies on his cunning and amiable nature to be liked and earn regard. He attaches himself to Count Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck) and gains popularity and favor for his book smarts and ability to spout off clever poetry. Unlike Carrouges, he's the life of the party.

A woman in medieval garb
Jodie Comer as MARGUERITE in THE LAST DUEL
 
It's during the third narrative, told by Marguerite (Jodie Comer) that we rethink everything we have been shown up to this point. Our view of Marguerite has been tainted by how she is perceived by the men. Carrouges view himself as her dutiful husband, while Le Gris fancies himself the man who can truly appreciate her, but both of them, shaped by the culture, see her as a prize to be won. During Marguerite's narrative, we see the pressure put on her by her husband, mother-in-law, and the whole kingdom of France, to give birth to a son. Why Marguerite chooses to bring this charge of rape to light is a mystery. Marguerite was raised by a father labeled as an outcast, so perhaps she wanted something different for her child. Marguerite represents truth, justice, and what's right.

In comparing this picture to the period dramas mentioned at the beginning like Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven, each of them lacks the concept of a woman as a person with her own story rather than a tool to be used as a vehicle for man's heroism. The Last Duel firmly includes this perspective, and, as its the last narrative we hear, seems to be the one Scott and Holofcener most want to elevate. Fittingly, Jodie Comer gives the strongest performance.

A knight with a bloody face looks upward
Matt Damon as CARROUGES in THE LAST DUEL

The film is impressive in scale and engaging to the brain but not fun to watch. Sitting through The Last Duel requires some stamina. Not only does it run on the long side, but the viewer must sit through an extended rape scene twice. While not a graphic scene, even once can be upsetting. Also, when the judges interrogate Marguerite about her experience of the rape, they ask nauseating questions like how much she enjoyed it, based on their beliefs that women needed an orgasm to get pregnant. While it's nothing we haven't heard before, such courtroom scenes try to patience and stomach of the modern viewer.   

It's interesting to examine this movie on the coattails of The Green Knight. Both movies take place during the Middle Ages and examine themes of honor, bravery, and duty. But whereas The Green Knight examines those themes with a postmodern lens, The Last Duel feels like a more traditional picture overall. If you didn't enjoy the surreal and postmodernism of The Green Knight, you will most likely prefer The Last Duel. It feels like a movie from an earlier time.

Release info: Coming to theaters October 15, 2021

Final score: 3.5 out of 5






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