I have a thing for Medieval stories. In fact, a few years ago, I was quite obsessed with the Wars of the Roses after seeing The White Queen miniseries. So when the first trailer of The Last Duel first came out, naturally I was intrigued! As a big fan of Gladiator, I know Ridley Scott can mount spectacular battle sequences so this is definitely right up his alley, but this time he tackles something that’s based on a true story. It’s worth noting that the film marks a reunion of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, both behind the scenes as screenwriters, as well as on screen as co-stars. The two besties collaborated with Nicole Holofcener in adapting Eric Jager’s 2004 book titled The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France.
For a film titled The Last Duel, obviously one expects a ton of gritty battle sequences and that is precisely what we get. The looks of the movie resembles to Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood with the steel gray tones that evokes a moody, atmospheric but also downright miserable feeling. Life was hard back then surely, with rampant bloody wars fought by power-hungry men. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is always present figure in many of those wars–he’s the Medieval Jason Bourne with equal ferocity and fighting skills. On one of his rare off days, however, Jean meets Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the beautiful daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), a Norman lord who’s considered a traitor by some, as he’s gone against the French king in a few territorial conflicts. Given his financial troubles, marrying Marguerite would be beneficial as it comes with a rather sizable dowry which includes a desirable piece of land in Normandy.
For a while Jean and Marguerite live a nice quiet life, that is until Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) who somehow bears resentment towards Jean demands that he pays off his debt. Pierre sends his squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to do his bidding, and soon Jacques practically becomes not only his party buddy but also his accountant. Despite having fought together in battles, there seems to be tension between Jean and Jacques, which only intensifies the more Jacques gains favors from Pierre.
The film’s title refers to the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history, which took place following Marguerite’s claim that Jacques had raped her while she was alone in her estate. Out of anger, Jean challenges Jacques to trial by combat despite King Charles VI court’s warning that if he loses, not only would he be killed but Marquerite would also be burned alive as his loss is considered that her accusation is false. As I mentioned before, life was hard back then, but it’s even harder for women in Medieval times. The Last Duel is perhaps the first big-budget, Medieval ‘Me-Too’ film with a woman’s story at the center and her narrative is what drives the main events throughout the film.
The film is broken down into 3 chapters to show different viewpoints from the three main characters, starting with Jean, Jacques and lastly, Marguerite. The multiple-chapters concept itself is intriguing, as it potentially allows viewers to immerse themselves in the story. However, the execution can also become a distraction. The way Scott sets it up here, at its best, it enables me to analyze the story from different angles. For example, when we see the story told from Jean’s perspective, he paints himself as a good guy who’s victimized by Pierre and Jacques. But once we see Marguerite’s POV, it’s apparent he’s no saint and that his sense of righteousness and entitlement is what brings him and his wife into the mess they’re in.
At its worst however, this verbose narrative style prolongs the film’s already bloated running time and becomes annoyingly-repetitive. It doesn’t help matters that the way the most horrific scene is filmed is seen twice!! It’s bad enough that I had to see a woman being brutalized, but I feel that the way the scene was directed lacks sensitivity as it ends up glorifying the perpetrator in the act. There’s that term ‘the female gaze’ and it would have really been beneficial having a woman’s influence in filming THAT scene, especially the second time that scene is shown, which is supposed to be viewed from Marguerite’s perspective. I really think the scene should’ve been ‘seen’ from her eyes… putting the audience in her shoes as she experiences such a heinous act done to her, but instead we see the perpetrator’s face in the throes of ecstasy, twice! From a director who’s been said to be a feminist-ally (after all he gave us Alien and Thelma & Louise), I expected more from him in this regard.
In terms of performances, Jodie Comer is a a standout amongst the mostly-male cast. Having enjoyed seeing her in the Killing Eve series and in Free Guy recently, she displays a terrific range as a dramatic actress. She’s got such strong screen presence and has the nuance and subtleties as Marguerite endures not only her husband’s callous insensitivity, but also the rejection from her own mother-in-law and girlfriends for coming out about being raped. The script does a good job showing the impossible situation women in the Middle Ages found themselves in when it comes to sexuality and their own bodies.
As for besties Damon and Affleck, I actually find their casting (and haircuts) a bit distracting here. The fact that the script makes Pierre so unfairly mean to Jean seems amusing given that they’re best friends. I’m glad Affleck didn’t end up playing Jacques as seeing the two duel to the death (Batman VS Bourne) would definitely take me out of the movie! It’s amusing to see Affleck as a comic relief of sort, it helps to have some moments of levity given the sense of dread surrounds the movie. As for Damon, his physical prowess is on display once again with all the fighting scenes he got to do. He still manages to make it believable that he could tackle someone bigger and 13 years his junior like Driver.
Speaking of Adam Driver, the prolific actor is no stranger for playing unsympathetic characters, but he takes that despicable factor up a notch here. His Jacques is the kind of man who has a warped sense of morality and entitlement, someone who thinks that even doing something as horrible as taking a woman by force is completely justified. Even amongst a long list of terrible characters he’s portrayed, I think Jacques is right up there. In fact, as a big fan of his, I’d say his performance here just might cure me of my infatuation with him, ahah. Of course that is a testament to his strength as an actor and his screen presence is undeniable.
In terms of action, I’d say the 82-year-old filmmaker’s still got it and his direction big battle scenes are perhaps the best in the business. All the war and fight scenes have such a high degree of realism—Scott and his DP Dariusz Wolski stage those scenes in such a visceral way. I remember the rush of the Germania battle sequence in the opening scene of Gladiator, with the horses galloping and soldiers clashing into each other on muddy grounds with swords/axes clanging. I felt the same way watching the battles in this one, down to the vicious, high-stakes climactic duel to the death that takes my breath away.
Given just how much armors these two guys put on, under lesser direction it’d be like seeing two giant tin cans whacking each other. But the fight scenes are dynamically-choreographed where you can really see what’s going on and they’re fused with real tension and suspense. The costumes, set pieces and locations all help create an authentic depiction of Medieval France. Harry Gregson-Williams‘s music perfectly complements the look and events in the film without overpowering it.
What you won’t find authentic would be the accents. Most of the actors use whatever accent they want, only Comer and a few of the British supporting cast actually speak with British accents. Apparently Comer helped Affleck with his dialect, while Damon and Driver sound pretty much like themselves with a few ‘British sounding’ moments few and far between. To be fair though, all of the characters are French anyway so even if they ALL sound British, it still wouldn’t be authentic.
Overall, The Last Duel is a competently-made film, but I couldn’t really give it high marks for the main issues I’ve mentioned, which I think detracts from the progressive female-empowerment theme. If you’re a fan of Sir Ridley or any of the cast, I still highly recommend this one. For sure, the epic action sequences did not disappoint and truly lived up to its title.
Have you seen THE LAST DUEL? Well, what did YOU think?