I’ve eagerly been awaiting Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel for some time now, despite the apparent lack of marketing surrounding this title. It appeared on both my 2020 and 2021 most anticipated films of the year list. The premise itself is simple enough: inspired by true events, the film is set in the late 1300s and two men will face off in a duel to the death, the winner will be deemed innocent of a most heinous crime in the eyes of God and thus, the people. At the middle of this duel is a woman, whose fate is equally bound by the outcome of this duel. Ridley Scott brings us back to the middle ages for a story that’s uncomfortably relevant still today. This review is spoiler-free and I would encourage you not to look up the historical event or the ending of the movie. I didn’t know the outcome of the tale and it definitely creates a sense of tension, not knowing who will come out the “winner” of this ghastly duel.
Matt Damon co-stars as Jean de Carrouges, a squire who starts the film in the middle of war. He’s a capable soldier, but one with little fortune to his name and even less standing in the court. Joining him in battle is fellow squire and friend Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver, who finds himself in the higher echelons of power and status, despite his rank. Both actors are great, but of the two it’s Driver who shines most as Jacques. He needs to be charming and menacing at the same time and Driver really delivers on this front. But why does he have to be charming? That ties into the crutch of the movie. Damon’s de Carrouges is married to Jodie Cormer’s Marguerite de Carrouges and she’s accused Jacques of rape. It’s a heavy charge to lay in France in the 14th century and many women would have stayed silent, but Marguerite refuses to do just that. With the help of her husband’s knightly status and his gender, he petitions the courts to allow him to fight Jacques in a duel to the death, the final duel to be legally be held in France for that matter.
The film is broken up into three chapters, The Truth According To each respective character. We start off with Jean before seeing events from the perspective of Jacques, before finally seeing what happened from Marguerite’s point of view. Damon co-writes and produces the film with his writing partners, Ben Affleck, who turns in a devious performance as Count Pierre d’Alençon, and Nicole Holofcener, who exclusively wrote Marguerite’s chapter. Through this retelling of events, characters and behaviours tend to change over the course of the movie and bias betrays or clouds the truth. In one chapter, a simple handshake may seem eager and full of happiness and yet in another, a different character may have seen that handshake as less enthusiastic. The same can be said for glances and reactions, which lends itself to how any of these characters remembered major and minor events. Everyone sees themselves as the hero, as the adage says, and Ridley Scott and his writing team certainly lean into that heavily with this movie. It’s heavy subject matter and the truth isn’t always what it seems. One character may seem charming in one chapter, but become seemingly horrible from the perspective of someone else. I think this is a strength of the movie, because the subject matter is often the cause of verbal testimony and through this lens, we get to see how bias and interpretation shape events and characters. This film can get uncomfortable and because we see the story a few times over, be prepared to be uncomfortable a few times.
While I mentioned that Driver is the scene stealer of the two men, it should be said that Marguerite is the heart and soul of the movie. Colmer delivers a nuanced performance as both victim and as someone willing to stand up for justice, despite the known and unknown consequences of doing so. The movie doesn’t shy away from rape culture in the courts of 14th century nobility and the comparison to modern day frat culture is pretty obvious. Likewise, it depicts certainly characters in less than flattering light as a result. But even those with just minds aren’t exactly saints either. You may think this sounds bleak and you’d be right. Not only that, but the movie is aware of it and Scott and his director of photography, Dariusz Wolski, lean into that. This movie looks muted, desaturated of colour and honestly, could have been black and white. But the hints of colour in the snowy backdrops, the cold, dank castles and soaring vistas make this grand movie feel intimate and yet cold and deprived. It sounds uninteresting and bland, but this is a gorgeously shot movie in its own way.
And what of the duel itself? I won’t reveal the outcome, don’t worry about that, but it’s visceral, brutal and intense. Throughout the film, but in particular the duel, the sound design is spectacular. The metal banging onto armour plates showcases just how dangerous and heavy these weapons are-and what they can do to a man.
The film does drag a bit as a result of rewatching certain scenes all over again, which contributes to the two and a half hour running time. Seeing multiple scenes over again is often very intriguing, as it showcases new information, but sometimes, the scenes didn’t feel very impactful or needed. Also, if you’re looking with authentic french accents, you won’t find them here, as most of the accents are either British or American. In the end though, these are ultimately minor issues. The Last Duel is a timely movie set in a period far removed from our own. It’s about a woman speaking out against a rape, whether she should have done so, and two men who both see themselves as innocent of any wrongdoing. In the age of the #metoo movement, The Last Duel may not be the film some were hoping for, it’s not exactly an optimistic or hopeful movie or even totally timely-it’s set in the middle-ages after all and women were considered property, not people, but it certifies that the truth will only come out if one speaks out about it. In this film’s case, the verdict shall be rendered by God and steel, not by verdict of the court.