Review: 'The Last Duel' (2021) Dir. Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott brings us another historical epic, this time in the guise of the 2004 book 'The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France' by Eric Jager to set a brutal stage...
Knights Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and friend Jacques Le Gris (Driver) return from serving in the Caroline War. The Count Pierre d'Alençon (Affleck) demands war levies, so de Carrouges marries Marguerite de Thibouville (Comer) for a large dowry.
Yet while de Carrouges continues to serve in the name of the King, an altercation between Le Gris and Marguerite takes place and Le Gris is accused of rape. Le Gris denies the charge, as de Carrouges finds reason to doubt him.
As de Carrouges and Le Gris are summoned to take part in a duel to settle the charge, the views of the three involved are played out to explore which version of the truth stands, and how the standings of men and woman play a part in so-called justice...
Set in the late 14th Century Paris, we join brave knights at the end of the closing battles of the Caroline War, part of the Hundred Year War between France and England. The Last Duel is a melodramatic drama, often something worthy of a dark soap opera, set against a brutal, life-changing period in history. The narrative is relayed in three chapters allowing us to see events through the eyes of each main character involved. First is Matt Damon's Sir Jean de Carrouges (who says "For the King!" first going into battle in his version). Second is Adam Driver's Jacques Le Gris (who says "For the King!" first going into battle in his version) and third, most importantly, is Jodie Comer's Marguerite de Carrouges.
In each version of the story, we see various takes on who saves who. Who has the more logical approach to battle? Who said what to who, and who is more loyal? There are many small details such as these that help show the twisted interpretation of truth and appearance. In the middle of this sits Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d'Alençon, second only to King Charles and who has relationships with all involved, but never getting his own hands dirty in the scandals that he must help judge over, despite his own fornications.
Damon and Driver are two strong actors of their generations. Damon plays Sir Jean de Carrouges with a world-weary frame who you can see bears the brunt of a life lived serving the King on the battlefield. With scraggy goatee and a poxed face of scars, he lives to serve and be a good husband; that's it. A man who may well struggle to keep up with the politics and nobility surrounding him, but lives to protect the values he holds dear even when his actions are questionable. It's ironic that in a world dominated by men such as Carrouges, the mothers, especially Harriet Walter playing Nicole de Buchard, hold so much sway with few words on their actions.
Driver, especially, is an actor who is absorbing to watch thanks to his towering frame and deep voice, and that lends his characters a great sense of mystery and intensity if he plays it so. He can do genre such as drama, comedy, thriller, action; a man of many talents as displayed here. Here as the imposing and often manipulative Le Gris, you find yourself resenting him as his journey plays out through each chapter, no matter the interpretation. He certainly embodies a certain breed of deplorable man, he himself torn between morals and faith in his actions.
Each of the three key players are both strong and weak in their own way, but relatable in terms of their humane attitudes and views on relationships and the joy / pain / jealousy that accompanies them, for better or for worse.
Comer's Marguerite is a bubbling source of resilience, fragility and bravery, kept in the shadows by her male counterparts until her side of the truth comes to bear. You can see during the story she is always thinking, always listening, always working out where her place is and what she needs to do in order to save face and protect herself, even from her husband. Her Lady is a tragic example of the struggles facing women not just then, but also now. Comer gives a powerful performance, with so much expression given with both her words and physicality.
While this sweeping story is set in an era popular with film and TV grandeur, the humane themes presented are nothing but identifiable and ever present today showing mankind hasn't really changed much.
Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to "historical epics", as they are known as a genre. Offering us one each decade, from the early 1990s with 1492: Conquest of Paradise, the 2000s with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, the 2010s with Robin Hood and now into the 2020s with this; 'The Last Duel'. Safe to say, Scott knows the genre and the audience he is setting out to win over. Yet behind the bloody clashes of swords and shields, to which there are surprisingly few, bar the brutal and barbaric last duel itself, the real battles are the ones of character. This comes from a screenplay co-written by stars Damon and Affleck, and fellow screenwriter Nicole Holofcener.
This acclaimed trio make it clear that while we see the world through many a mans eyes, the heart of the woman is what beats behind them all. And dealing with such an issue as rape doesn't leave room for error and misjudgement, but the script is tight and absorbing when the three views are played out to us as viewers, letting us witness justice - or injustice - first hand. It makes for some uncomfortable viewing in places, but is crucial to give a sense of the overall story, and add to the rise of The Last Duel itself that is teased in the opening minutes.
It is a dark and gloomy affair set across France in candle-lit chambers, stone cobbled castles and fog-rolling fields. The set-design and real-life practical locations are top-tier of the genre and help reflect the cold, realistic setting of winter that are characters are living in. Scott collaborators Harry Gregson-Williams as composer provides a strong score, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski captures each frame hauntingly, with lots of juxtapositions on religion and establishing camera angles to reflect the power of what we see screen.
It's a very easy genre to get right with the right talent, and here Scott has surrounded himself with the best to make The Last Duel as authentic an interpretation of the late 14th Century as possible with a powerful and chilling finale that could echo across the decades.
A refreshing narrative focusing on one subject matter told through the eyes of three exceptional actors, 'The Last Duel' is a character driven historical drama that cuts just as powerful with words and actions instead of just swords and shields.
'The Last Duel' is a co-production between Scott Free Productions, Pearl Street Films and TSG Entertainment