The Last Duel: A He Said, He Said, She Said Story Featuring Brutality, a Dynamic Leading Lady, and K
Months ago, when I first saw the trailer for Ridley Scott’s ‘The Last Duel,’ I wasn’t sure what to think.
Sure, it had all the telltale signs of a serious drama – rape allegations, a duel to the death, ominous music – but it also appeared to show Matt Damon cosplaying as John Daly at a renaissance festival and Ben Affleck looking like an extra from a Smashmouth video.
Q: So just what did the acclaimed director (and Damon and Affleck, who wrote the script along with Nicole Holofcener) have in store for us?
A: A serious drama with an awful lot of brutality (in terms of quality, not quantity) that is reigned in by a brilliant leading performance by Jodi Comer … and the aforementioned terrible hair on Damon and Affleck.
Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) and Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) in ‘The Last Duel.’ (©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.)
‘The Last Duel,’ based on the 2004 book ‘The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France,’ tells the story of Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer), whose claims of rape against Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) lead to a duel to the death between Le Gris and Marguerite’s husband, Jean de Carrouges (Damon).
The film is broken into three chapters, each depicting the “truth,” according to one of the three main characters. Chapter one according to Jean de Carrouges; chapter two according to Jacques Le Gris; and chapter three according to Marguerite de Carrouges.
The events of each chapter play out similarly in each tale, but the truth is in the details, and those seemingly miniscule details often change the entire narrative.
What we know, based on the three accounts (and without providing any spoilers) is this:
Jacques Le Gris had carnal knowledge of Marguerite de Carrouges, while Jean de Carrouges was fighting in Scotland. She claims rape, he claims adultery.
Jean de Carrouges was already upset at Le Gris over his relationship – and the unearned benefits of said relationship – with Count Pierre d'Alençon (Affleck).
Jean de Carrouges appealed to King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) to settle the “property dispute” with a duel to the death. Yep, women had no legal standing in 14th century France, so Jean de Carrouges had to take up his wife’s cause as if he was the one who was wronged.
Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) in ‘The Last Duel.’ (©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.)
Now, this story structure isn’t going to appeal to everybody. The first comment I heard while exiting the theater was from one bro to another – “great, dude, we get to see the same story three times.” The second comment, while not articulated well – “OMG, I LOVE that we saw it from all three … the best EVER!” – was more in line with my line of thinking.
Too often, I think, we see only one side of a story play out on screen. Generally speaking, it works, but it also paints a very black and white picture based on what perspective the story is told from, while leaving a character’s motivations up for debate. Bringing multiple perspectives into a singular story isn’t viable in many cases, but in the case it’s very effective. Don’t think you don’t walk out knowing exactly where the truth lies, but you also see how people arrive at their actions without having to guess.
Overall, the cast is fine – Driver is Driver and his punchable mug lends itself nicely to the arrogant (and handsome?) playboy, Le Gris; Affleck takes his ‘Boiler Room’ character, Jim Young, makes him look a little like Guy Fieri, and it somehow works for the power-hungry, smug (and handsome?) playboy, d'Alençon; and Damon convincingly plays the brutal soldier who cares for his honor above all else perfectly.
Jodie Comer as Marguerite de Carrouges in ‘The Last Duel.’ (©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.)
But it’s really Comer who is the star here. She brings a quiet dignity to a character who is often overlooked and treated as less. It’s not a flashy role, but it’s a powerful one, and as she did in ‘Free Guy’ earlier this year and as she has for three seasons on ‘Killing Eve,’ she steals virtually every scene she’s in. Action, drama, comedy, it seems she can adapt nicely. Best Actress is a loaded category this year, but she will certainly be in the conversation come Oscar nomination time.
‘The Last Duel’ should also be commended for not shying away from its own brutality. The violence is on full display – and it’s pretty gory at times – but it lends itself well to this overarching theme that the land and people of this time were cruel and heartless savages who could overlook actions so long as it was to their benefit. Even the more “refined” characters show their lack of humanity through inaction in this unrelenting time period.
If you can get over the haircuts and that everyone in 14th century France speaks English (except when they sing), ‘The Last Duel’ is fast moving (despite its 153-minute run time) story that sucks you in throughout. If, however, you’re a bit squeamish about the subject matter, you might want to avoid as it doesn’t pull many punches.
★★★★ of ★★★★★