Director Ridley Scott is likely characterized by historical dramas as much as Scorsese is by gangster films. They don’t make up the majority of his career, but given the highs he’s had in the genre, I pay attention when he decides it’s time to deliver another. The Last Duel is actually pretty fascinating in how it finds Scott choosing to move in creative new directions. Challenging the notion of knights in shining armor, this film focuses on a story of sexual assault told three times over, with conflicting versions based around the lead characters. The resulting film features a level of brutality wrapped up in themes relevant to today while still fitting in a reasonable amount of eccentricity.
Set during the 14th century, Matt Damon stars as Jean de Carrouges, a French knight with a temperamental attitude. His demeanor is based on his desire to live up to those who preceded him and be respected. When his best friend, a well-liked knight and known womanizer, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), is accused of raping Jean’s wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the contradictory stories leads to the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.
The film is rooted in historical fact to the extent that it can be. While known for heavily researched efforts to recreate a time and place, Scott is able to take liberties matching the intention of the film. The result effectively conveys how the notion of chivalry can be flipped on its head. Plus, considering all that being a man at this time feasibly entails, the film benefits from providing a strong voice for the female perspective and displaying the lack of advantages afforded to them.
Split into three parts to tell this story, writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck may have put their muscle behind the film’s initial two segments, but filmmaker Nicole Holofcener was enlisted to write the final third, which focuses on Marguerite’s point of view. Naturally, there’s plenty of creative collaboration to make the story flow as a whole, but the unique way of structuring this film gains further credence from having a proper perspective.
It is a strong effort overall, which comes from all areas of production. As violent as the film can be, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski knows his way around bloody battlefields and more intimate castle settings alike. At over two and a half hours, the film does not mind taking its time, but it hardly felt off-putting given my general interest in how Scott puts process at the forefront of these sorts of productions. Yes, the story has distinct goals in mind, and the basic understanding of them can be gleaned rather quickly, but Scott’s confidence in building out his worlds and letting us fall in with these characters works for me.
The importance of seeing all of those elements come together is how we view these three main characters. Thanks to the shifting perspective, understanding the various nuances goes a long way in helping an audience appreciate the subtle differences. There is a version of this film where the distinctions between the different parts could be more obvious. Honestly, I could see that as betraying the film’s tone, were there to be broader characterizations to make intentions standout. Instead, here’s a movie where glances, subtle smiles, and how one hears another can make all the difference in what ultimately takes place.
Making that possible are the actors who are all up to the task. Damon has bulked up heavily enough to play a man who is ultimately a chump. Jean is the most honorable of the men, I suppose, but he’s also the guy that no one really likes. His aspirations to be treated as someone on top make him ultimately seem foolish, especially as we more of how he decides to treat his wife’s story. Adding to all of this is Damon’s ability to let his guard down and be willing to look this way while letting his co-stars run right over him.
Speaking of which, Driver is expectedly good here. There’s a particular way the camera can capture him at different angles taking his mild grins from playful to devilish in ways that are not easy for an actor. It makes all the difference in seeing how things lead to the film’s most brutal and uncomfortable scene, which is expanded upon through troubling viewpoints.
Driver’s portion of the film also allows Affleck to step in as Count Pierre d’Alencon, providing the movie a surprising amount of humor in its middle section. Given the serious nature of what’s taking place, while adding a more contemporary element to the characters, having some levity makes for a nice counter (especially with a lot of it feeling like Affleck wanted to relish the chance to give Damon a hard time).
Of course, speaking of contemporary attitudes, Comer’s section of the film is entirely informed by attitudes of today. Looking at how accountability is putting individuals to task, and shaking up the climate in dramatic ways, seeing Scott dress up a #MeToo film in knights’ armor would be wild were he not to already have a history of feminist films under his belt.
Between Alien and Thelma & Louise, Scott has found fascinating ways to subvert certain norms with iconic characters. The Last Duel does not come up short in this regard though. No, this is a film with two whole segments building up to what is obviously going to be the most accurate account of what took place. As it stands, Comer is excellent in her portrayal of a woman who stands little chance of being taken seriously but proceeds down a specific path anyway.
Keeping consequences of one’s action in mind, clearly, a film titled The Last Duel needs to deliver a true climax fitting of such a heading. If I’m still looking at Rob Roy as one of the best modern examples of a duel, Scott at least looks at exciting and realistic ways to complicate the matter of two prideful men fighting to the death. It doesn’t hurt that he finds the opportunity to push through some of the more violent actions I’ve seen from his films, which is saying something.
At 83, and with another film due to open a month from now, Ridley Scott’s fascinating late period continues to show what a tremendous filmmaker he can be. The best qualities of his historical filmmaking are all present here, with terrific use of his lead players to add to this engaging story focused on betrayal, spite, and the strength of a woman’s word. Having this film rely on a Rashomon-style narrative informed by today’s themes serves as an engaging way to speak to the universality of the world’s history – even if that means letting swords do the talking without exactly solving the real problems that persist.