Just a note, this review will touch on the topic of sexual violence, not in great details but it will discuss it as a topic presented in the film. If this is something that you are sensitive to, please read with caution or click off this review.
The Last Duel is the latest movie from director Ridley Scott after a four year absence following the back-to-back releases of the divisive Alien: Covenant and the admittedly forgettable All the Money in the World. The movie is based on a non-fiction book by Eric Jager that details the true story depicted in the film. The movie centres itself around the titular trial by combat after an accusation of rape evolves into a battle of faith and will.
Now, I know admittedly very little about this story other than the events depicted in the film, so I’m solely going off that as a basis for my thoughts. I know there is much discourse about the true history of the case, but I’m going to focus on the conclusion the movie leads us to.
Ridley Scott is a director I’m very hot or cold with. I really love Alien, Blade Runner, and The Martian, but I find myself to be much less admiring of American Gangster and the two 2017 releases listed above. So I had very little expectation of what I was going to think of this movie.
And true to form, it’s a very mixed bag of things.
The story is presented in three ‘chapters’ that retell the central tale through three different perspectives: Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). The first chapter is seen through de Carrouges’ eyes, so we first see his impression of the other characters and events, with Le Gris, and the Lady de Carrouges’ perspectives to follow respectively. I think this choice is a good one. Despite the fact that the scenes we’ve already seen can become tiresome, Scott uses his actors and the idea of revolving perspectives to present new information to his audience, sometimes actively challenging what we’ve previously been told or shown.
Starting with Damon’s slightly boring protagonist is effective because the roots of the story are presented quite plainly, although de Carrouges has a particularly unpopular opinion of himself and is wildly contrasted in the other two chapters when his less favourable sides start to show through the respectable cracks we’ve come to know. Damon handles the physical demands of the role well and he appears to have a good handle on the character, but I do not know why didn’t spend more time working with him on his accent, which is massively inconsistent and stands out among the native accents and the other actors doing a better job of delivering it. It can distract and take away from his ideal line delivery at times, particularly whenever he’s saying the word “God” which does come up quite a bit.
To give credit to Damon, he doesn’t do a bad job at all and there are moments where he really nails it, it just doesn’t come through all the time. I definitely think his chapter is the weakest, but that’s by design as he wasn’t a direct party in the events of the case, so only has second-hand accounts of how things escalated. There are some nicely choreographed and shot battle scenes in this first section and the sound design is pretty great, if not a little overwhelming at times, though that itself does a good job of maintaining investment and setting up for the drama that’s about to follow.
The second chapter delves into the assault for the first time after we hear about it in the first chapter. Scott takes us back to the beginning once again to see everything through Le Gris’ eyes. After what we’ve just been told, getting this chapter right is crucial to the overall arc of the film. And while it works much better than the first due to it following a more interesting character, it still doesn’t quite hit all the nails on their respective heads. Obviously, there are many additional scenes but it’s the rehashing that drained me a little. The choice is somewhat necessary, but realising that we’re going to experience the same scenes three times was a little exhausting and was reflected in the film’s 153 minute runtime. But there are a fair few upsides to this section, including the very layered performance from the reliable Adam Driver.
From the glimpses we get of him in the first section, Le Gris doesn’t have much going for him, but it’s when you get his perspective that he becomes more complex, including in his relationship with Count Pierre and his view of Marguerite that had only been sort-of hinted in the one scene from the first chapter where de Carrouges and Le Gris settle their initial rift with each other. Driver handles Le Gris’ more detestable traits with aplomb, injecting so much dominance into his interactions with Marguerite while his sycophantic behaviour towards the Count is played much more earnestly. The rape scene itself is completely uncomfortable in every respect and Driver doesn’t shy away from this in his presentation of Le Gris in this moment. In his mind, Le Gris thinks he’s acting upon a mutual love and is therefore blameless, despite Marguerite’s protests and obvious disgust and fear during the attack. He thinks he’s doing it for love and Adam Driver is totally convincing in displaying all of this. Driver’s range as an actor continues to impress and in any other film, his performance would be the one generating all the attention. However, The Last Duel has a trick up its sleeve as it heads into the final chapter.
The final chapter depicts Marguerite’s account of things, something that is not so subtly referred to as ‘the truth’, the only two words left on screen after the chapter title card fades away. It’s a way of imploring the audience to believe women as we head into her retelling of events. This chapter is by far the strongest because it’s focusing on the bulk of the dramatic storytelling with full focus as the men take a backseat to Marguerite’s perspective. In the first two chapters, we rarely see her in moments of solitude as she’s always with one of the other two leads. But here, we get Marguerite as she is rather than as how the men see her. We get to see her interact with her friends and witness an unbiased view of how Jean’s mother sees her. All of this is told to us through the absolute majesty of Jodie Comer’s performance. She is spectacular here, delivering a range of things across the two chapters, but this is truly where she gets to shine.
de Carrouges and Le Gris see her as they see all women: inferior and things to be taken, so Marguerite is presented as such: subdued, obedient, and quiet. Her perspective unravels all of this and displays her intelligence, strength, and dignity in full force. She’s equipped to run the estate and she has a sharp mind. Comer flexes her acting muscles to the nth degree and delivers a powerful yet subtle depiction of trauma and desperation. Marguerite’s retelling of the rape scene is even more harrowing and Comer really sells such a brutal, sickening moment. The scene that’s really stuck with me though is the final court scene where Marguerite is questioned by the judges, the full extent of their misogyny really on show for all to bear witness to. She is asked some very frustrating questions as they all believe she’s lying, but Jodie Comer is able to show her resoluteness with full force. I don’t want to give the moment away, but there’s a point in that sequence where something is revealed about the aftermath of the duel and Comer’s silent reaction to it absolutely blew me away. She is nothing short of sensational in every moment and I would not begrudge her an Oscar nomination whatsoever. At this point, it’s more a question of what can’t she do. And with each performance she gives, I’m beginning to think there’s no role that she couldn’t master. What a performance.
I do have to take a quick moment to talk about the biggest surprise of the film, which is Ben Affleck’s performance as the Count. He was originally supposed to play Le Gris, but opted for the more supporting role instead, which I think was the correct decision. Not only did it allow Adam Driver to be in it, but Affleck absolutely nails this role. He’s funny, rude, and a perfect depiction of what nobility would be like. There’s a world of potential to be unearthed in his performance though, and there a few scenes which I wished had gone deeper but then would’ve distracted from the central plot. I could’ve watched a lot more of him in this role.
Other supporting performances come from Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, and Željko Ivanek and they’re all perfectly fine. I particularly enjoyed Lawther’s sense of whimsy as the King which brought some levity to the sheer intensity of the story.
I’ve spoken a lot about the acting and story structure, but the other technical elements hold up well too. Janty Yates’ costume design is excellent, I especially enjoyed a lot of the Count’s outfits which reflected his station and also his personality. Claire Simpson’s editing deserves a mention too due to how she had to construct the three different chapters in a coherent way with a lot of overlap in the content.
The Last Duel is a lot of conflicting things meshing into one overlong film. There’s a lot of good here, but it’s also quite uneven. It’s hard to talk about this film properly in a sense, due to telling a relevant story but setting it in the 14th century. Obviously, it’s based on an actual story so this is sort of unavoidable, but it would be easy to decry the behaviours of the characters because 21st century attitudes have very much diverged from women washing their husband’s feet and being forbidden to leave the house. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of belief in women when they come forward with accusations, particularly against men who are considered ‘respected’ by other powerful men, so in some ways it’s a vital story and in others it feels little useless as it can’t really go deeper into its themes and still stick its regressive 14th century ideas. There’s a line somewhere about the crime not happening to Marguerite, but instead it’s a “property crime” against her husband, hence why de Carrouges’ life is on the line in order to gain justice. Even still, de Carrouges’ potential failure would tell France that Marguerite was lying simply because God would honour those being truthful. It gives the woman present no agency, even her trauma is taken away from her and placed upon the man she just so happens to be married to. Nobody is there to comfort her, to help her heal. Instead, the emphasis is placed on her having supposedly brought shame upon her husband and family. It’s absolutely abhorrent and will frustrate audiences for sure and perhaps that’s the point, but I couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t the best avenue to discuss these topics.
All in all, The Last Duel is a brilliantly-acted, frequently interesting film which tests the boundaries of its own runtime even if it doesn’t quite manage to make the titular duel as exciting as it could have been and it doesn’t really pay off the last 140 minutes of story. It’s the one sequence that I don’t think was shot particularly well and was quite hard to follow at times. There’s a fair amount of really good stuff happening here, I just wish I liked it more.
Long story short: believe women. Believe survivors when they discuss their experiences. And when they choose not to, believe them too.
The Last Duel is currently in cinemas now.