Another violent period epic of machismo from Ridley Scott is at hand, but this time, he is adding shades to the dour palette. Bestowed from the unexpected writing collaboration of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and the great Nicole Holofcener, The Last Duel centers on the 14th century tale of Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) and her rape at the hands of Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). It’s a recipe for much of what we have seen before from the technically prolific director, but this pairing of disparate creatives arrives ready to bring out new notes from each of its collaborators.
The film views this event from three perspectives, ultimately aiming to unpack men’s position in society and women’s lack of voice throughout history in the process. We begin with Jean de Carrouges (a mulleted Damon), ostracized from court while marrying Marguerite and mending his mounting grudges to Le Gris. Next, we see the coddled Le Gris and his rise to power. We end with Marguerite, as her accusation results in the titular duel to the death between husband and assaulter, and her challenging of the structures that keep her from being believed. Each chapter informs the other, reshading the events to reveal the imposing faults of all men involved.
The Last Duel first presents itself as another one of Ridley Scott’s grand but dull epics, in the vein of duds like Exodus: Gods and Kings or the divisive Kingdom of Heaven. But as it proceeds, the film reveals the director as surprisingly light on his feet, marrying differing tones with a sense of delight in skewering the ego of men. Rest assured, it is still partly a dry Ridley Scott epic. But his approach here is both reserved and rascally, dodging some opportunity for heavy-handedness where you expect it and flourishing with it where you might not. There are cape swirls and wigs, but there are also over-pixelated CGI vistas; there’s idiosyncrasy, but also mechanical motions. Affleck’s mindfully goofy performance also enhances this texture, a shockingly delightful atonal (and therefore perfect) element to the proceedings as Count Pierre d’Alençon. The balance isn’t perfect, but it is much more odd and interesting than your first impressions might lead you to anticipate.
It is seemingly inappropriate material to make for an amusing time at the movies, but Scott takes the Rashomon-lite structure and applies a tonal versatility to further accentuate The Last Duel’s perspectives. Flashes of humor, camp, and brooding excess serve a purpose beyond entertainment, and ultimately help define both the film’s chapters and the archetypes.
In actuality, it is less that it is a mismatch of tone to material than it is the film misjudging our need to see the rape of Marguerite depicted repeatedly. The differences in perception of the assault, despite the film’s certainty in all tellings that it is unquestionably a rape, ultimately amount to hairsplitting minutiae of perception and bias that the film should trust the audience to already be intelligent enough to interpret without having to endure witnessing it. This brings to question who The Last Duel is meant for, ultimately revealing its limitations and predisposition towards didacticism.
Though the film grows more obvious and didactic as the story progresses (or, I suppose, repositions), its final stretch provides an exciting showcase for Jodie Comer. Proving she has the potential for movie stardom as promised by her small screen work, Comer is immensely watchable as Marguerite, populating the more familiar story beats with palpable emotion that transcends. It may not help that the build up to her storyline means we know exactly where The Last Duel will be taking us, but the crest of Comer’s performance makes the final hour of the film nevertheless absorbing.
Inelegant but at least engaging in how it draws parallels to modern mores, The Last Duel is almost intentional in its anachronisms, but fascinating as a representation of its director and writers pushing themselves beyond their normal limits. Not to be overthought, it is a broadly minded and expensive diversion that avoids being the worst (if not always least interesting) version of itself.